THE EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL
ESSAYS IN A PURPLE LIBERATION THEOLOGY
A THESIS SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY
IN PARTIAL DEMONSTRATION OF SPECIAL COMPETENCY
IN LESBIAN AND GAY LIBERATION THEOLOGY
AND FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF DIVINITY
BY SARAH FAIRBAIRN POWERS
h 'inity School
Ca ige, MA 02138
THE EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL
ESSAYS IN A PURPLE LIBERATION THEOLOGY
A THESIS SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY
IN PARTIAL DEMONSTRATION OF SPECIAL COMPETENCY
IN LESBIAN AND GAY LIBERATION THEOLOGY
AND FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF DIVINITY
BY SARAH FAIRBAIRN POWERS
Digitized by the Internet Archive
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: Doing liberation theology in the "Purple church" 1
Part I: Preliminaries: Purple people in a Purple church 1 2
Chapter 1 : Naming ourselves as purple: What does it mean to say 1 3
that we are lesbians, gaymen, bisexuals, transsexuals,
Chapter 2: MCC as a "Purple church": 3 1
Snapshots from the family album
Chapter 3: The Spirit among us: 4 6
Can we come out about the Sacred in our lives?
Chapter 4: Feminist Liberation Theology 101: 65
Blowing the trumpets around Jericho
Part II: A purple pastor at work 83
Chapter 5: The Spirit is given — for Liberation 84
(An anti-Christ the King sermon)
Chapter 6: Ruach's Dance 94
Chapter 7: A Ruach liberation eucharistic canon 99
Part III: Thinking about Ruach and purple liberation 1 3
Cnapter 8: Scripture as the gathered community's telling of Ruach 1 04
among us: Toward a purple liberation approach
to the Bible
Chapter 9: Prophecy and Establishment: Ruach and liberation 1 22
in the first post-resurrection generations
Chapter 10: Dancing with Ruach 1 37
Reference List 1 4 7
DOING LIBERATION THEOLOGY IN THE "PURPLE CHURCH"
MCC as the context of this thesis
What does it mean to transport the methodology and insights of feminist
liberation theology into another venue? Specifically, can my faith community,
Metropolitan Community Church, benefit from a theology of liberation constructed
using feminist liberation theology as a model? I believe that the answer to this
question is an unqualified "YES!" I came to the Episcopal Divinity School to study
theology from within my own context and praxis of Metropolitan Community Church;
and I hoped to begin to construct a liberation theology arising from the shared
experience and lives of sexual minority Christians. While I have been doing academic
theology at the seminary, I have returned to my own community of praxis and support
weekend after weekend, journeying with the community of MCC in the Mountains.
This thesis, then, sits at the intersection of a theology of the academy and a lived,
communal theology. When I talked to Fredrica Harris Thompsett about my request
for certification of special competency in "Lesbian and Gay Liberation Theology", she
suggested that I try to produce something "which can be passed around within MCC,
something which can be shared." In the sharing among my own community during the
writing of the thesis, women and men from MCC in the Mountains have become
partners in the work. Where they are quoted, their real names are given: they are
and feel that much a part of this work.
In an invitation which feels like "the final exam for seminary", and which
shaped the final form of this paper, Harry Stock, pastor of MCC of the Disciples in
Washington, D.C., and coordinator of educational programs for the Mid-Atlantic
District of MCC, asked me to give a workshop on feminist liberation theology for the
June district conference. What we billed as "FLT 101... a gentle introduction by one
of the Mid-Atlantic District's own", will be in response to vigorously voiced concern
about feminism arising from our 1991 General Conference in Phoenix. Sibbie Deal,
the veteran lay delegate from MCC Washington D.C., a large evangelical MCC,
exploded, "It's satanic!".
There isn't a faith community in the world that wouldn't benefit by having
Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken present at its deliberations to record and comment on
the wackier moments: Deal's comment emerges someplace from the combination of:
a service with red candles on the altar; a brilliant sermon by Darlene Garner which
began with a Native American blessing, including the burning of sage (1); the closing
service, into which the women of Oregon's Sisterspace MCC carried their
congregational banner, which has the goddess Hathor (she's horned, for those who
don't know) surrounded by moon and stars; and the passing of a non-binding
resolution from the People for Spiritual Diversity (acronym PSD), which appeared to
call for "Goddess Worship" at the next General Conference. As the delegates
ploughed through a stack of non-binding resolutions in their notebooks during a
hectic business session, generally voting without prior debate, this resolution called
for the next General Conference to have workshops on various spiritualities. Sample
topics were enumerated in the resolution, but the list had a typo so that what was
1 Garner, pastor of MCC of Northern Virginia, proudly claims both the
Native American and African American aspects of her heritage.
intended to be a "Goddess Workshop," itself sufficiently horrifying to the
conservatives, read "Goddess Worship." MCC Washington's pastor, Larry Unrig,
leapt to the microphone immediately after the resolution passed, and mournfully
asked Troy Perry, the founder and moderating elder, "Troy, what did we just pass?"
Twain, or Mencken, or Andy Rooney could have produced five saleable minutes out
of this; the problem is that the conservatives, already uptight, now have a nightmare
image of "what the feminists will do if we let them loose. " Nor are we unusual; I suggest
that there would have even more uproar if this all had happened at the other end of
Phoenix that week, at the Episcopal Church's 1991 General Convention.
It is into this context, right into the homeland of Deal and Unrig, that I go to
do my workshop. I think I will do it with much more elan if I walk around the hotel
in Baltimore ahead of time and assure myself that there aren't any telephone poles
with wood neatly stacked at the bottom. But I am delighted to have an opportunity
and a forum to speak about my conviction that liberation theology is inherently
appropriate for MCC, and that feminist liberation theology is a necessary part of the
theology which we will develop, because of its attention to issues of gender, race, and
class which we need to address.
Approach and structure of the paper:
The "actual" and "intended" audiences for this paper are different. The
actual audience is a thesis review group of the Episcopal Divinity School. But the
intended audience is other communities and persons within MCC, within what I will
define as "the Purple Church", who will - I hope — build on the reflective essays here
with their own reflection and action, creating their own purple liberation theology.
Therefore, the material is structured to be accessible to and workable in a small
group, with questions at the end of each block; designed to do some community-
building through the group dialogues as it progresses. This is not systematic or
historical theology; it is a series of attempts at a liberation theology of the Spirit for
sexual minority communities. As such, it is — I hope — useful even when it misses, as
a starting point for someone else.
In the first part, we look at the preliminaries for a liberation theology
emerging from our fellowship: our lives as sexual minority persons, our history and
reality as a church of the sexual minority, and our strong sense of the Holy Spirit
among us (which I see as a distinctive mark of MCC, and which I follow in grounding
my theology in the Spirit, in Ruach, to use the Hebrew word.) The workshop
presentation closes this section, introducing liberation theology in our context. In the
second part, I try to express the thesis pastorally: in a sermon developing the
connection between Ruach and liberation, in a meditation, and in a eucharistic canon.
In the third part I look at scripture as the gathered community's telling of the
experience of Ruach among us; at the tension between Ruach and structure, and the
church's perennial urge to contain and control Ruach; and finally, at the mission of
the gathered community, which is impossible to consider without also looking at
eschatology and redemption. These last three chapters expand and defend my thesis
that a connection between a theology of the Holy Spirit and a theology of liberation is
biblical, is true to the experience of the early church, is appropriate for today, and
that MCC is well-served by a Spirit-based theology of purple liberation.
Three key concepts: Purple, Ruach, and Liberation
Three key concepts which I will link in the thesis, are the notion of MCC as
the "purple church", as a church which celebrates the Spirit (Ruach) among us, and as
a church for which liberation theology is particularly appropriate.
I became increasingly intrigued with the notion of "the Purple Church" as a
useful image for MCC (and other lesbian and gay caucuses within the mainline
Christian churches). When I read womanist and Black theologians, I am moved by
the rich flavor of their African heritage and seasoning of American experience which
they bring to their passionate connection with Jesus, with God, with each other.
Aha!, I think; this gives me an idea of how we can celebrate our lesbian/gay
experience and our Christianity. Similarly, when I study the teaching of the Black
Church, I learn how an oppressed minority can see a vision of justice and compassion
which others miss, and hold that up as a vision for all. When I look at the social
programs of the Black Church, providing food for the body and food for the mind,
power in education and power in voter registration, I get an idea of what is possible
for us as the church of and for the sexual minority community.
Purple, or lavender, is often used as a code for gays and lesbians, so I began
to think of us as the purple church. Further, the notion of purple church frees us
from the exclusivity implied by an alternate wording, "the lesbian/gay church",
because our denomination also has bisexual, transsexual, transgendered, and
heterosexual members. In thinking of ourselves as the purple church, we can
shorthand a notion of a church whose primary ministry and identification is with the
sexual minority communities, and with those who stand in solidarity with us, most
often our close family members. Perhaps more importantly, this naming frees us
from the essentialism inherent in categories of sexuality, to emphasize that we find
ourselves on a continuum of sexuality. What we have in common is that we are, as
purple people, in societally-defined tabu zones of that continuum, or in solidarity with
those who are.
Secondly, it seems to me that the charismatic/pen tecostal/renewal flavor of
MCC, with its celebration of the Spirit among us is one of our foremost gifts. There is
both a joy and a conviction which comes from the rich spirituality of this strand of our
tradition, and it is deeply rooted. Troy Perry, our founder and moderating elder, was
a pentecostal preacher before he came out as a gay man.
Reflecting on this, and working backwards with biblical material, I followed
from the pneuma kuriou of the Septuagint and Christian Scriptures to ruach yahweh,
the strong Spirit of the Eternal One of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit which
brooded over the waters in the Genesis creation myth, the Spirit which filled and
empowered the prophets to call simultaneously for justice and for a recognition of the
great love of God for God's creation. Those of us who are Christians can see a
continuous thread in our experience, then, from ruach in creation to pneuma at
Pentecost and empowering the church of Acts (and the church today) — and it
delights me as a feminist that the linguistic gender of both ruach and pneuma is
feminine. It also seemed to me that it could be useful to bringing more balance to the
characteristic Western mainstream church's underemphasis on the Holy Spirit.
Eastern Orthodox trinitarian critics call the Western Christian near-total emphasis on
Christ "Christomonism"; this is being corrected both by the creation-centered
theologians and by a reemphasis on the Spirit.
Thirdly, I realized that we had, within MCC, been advocates for justice for
lesbians and gaymen from our foundation in 1968, advocates for liberation.
Liberation theology would not be a foreign import into our church, but would offer
methodology and insight, extending and challenging us, resonating with and
illuminating some of the work which MCC had already done. In our 1989 mission
statement, for instance, we said that we seek to "confront the injustice of poverty,
sexism, racism, and homophobia through Christian social action."
Liberation is one of the key movements of the Spirit in our times, I believe.
From base communities across the world — small groups living in support of and
accountability to one another, committed to prayer, reflection and action — we are
hearing new theologies of liberation, rooted in the particularities of their experience.
I first heard of Latin American liberation theology, Black liberation theology,
womanist theology, and feminist liberation theology; but the list continues to grow:
Mujerista theology emerging from Hispanic women, Minjung theology among
Koreans, Native People's Christian theology, and then in 1989 the first books self-
consciously naming themselves as lesbian or gay liberation theology, Carter
Heyward's Speaking of Christ and Touching Our Strength, and J. Michael Clark's A
Place to Start.
Ruach liberation theology as a theology particularly appropriate for MCC:
If I think of these three elements in a different order, the lesbian/gay rights
movement, liberation theologies, and a recovered sense of the vitality of the Spirit, all
are occasions of grace in our time. Can we link them? To date, not much purple
liberation theology has been written; on what do we rest it? The tension which
catapulted me into this linkage last year was my realization that most people really
excited about the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives also carry a highly conservative
political/theological stance; and that most people into liberation aren't particularly
conscious of the Spirit. Jose Comblin's book, The Holy Spirit and Liberation,
published in 1987 and translated into English in 1989, is the first major work I have
seen which makes a connection between the Spirit and liberation.
It is my thesis that a connection between a theology of the Holy Spirit and a
theology of liberation is biblical, is true to the experience of the early church, is
appropriate for today, and that MCC is well-served by a Spirit-based theology of
purple liberation. The emphasis on the Spirit taps a deep and authentic root for us;
and a liberation theology would take us past the temptation, which we share with the
lesbian/gay caucuses in the mainline churches, to settle for a praxis which is positive
about gay men's sexuality, and yet retains a political/sexist/racist/ ecclesiastical/
clericalist/hierarchical/patriarchal conservatism, which Virginia Mollenkott describes
as "justice for 'just us" 1 . It is worth noticing that this link between a theology based in
the Spirit and liberation runs counter to the typical marriage between political
conservatism and renewal/evangelical Christianity, a marriage which I think is a
mistake, and I argue that the communities of praxis represented in MCC are naive if
we think our purposes are served by conservatism.
The community of praxis from which I work:
According to the methodology of liberation theology, our work is done in
community, from among a "community of praxis", women and men living in close
support and accountability who prayerfully reflect on their experience, move to
action, and then continue the circle with ongoing reflection. My community of praxis,
as I write this paper, is a group of friends/colleagues/fellow Christians in
Metropolitan Community Church of the Mountains, a small mission church in the
Upper Connecticut Valley.
Since September 1990, I have been pastoral leader for this mission venture, a
new work of MCC in the Upper Valley. The group began meeting in Montpelier,
Vermont, and moved in 1991 to West Lebanon, New Hampshire. As I write this
introduction, we have eighteen members, and have just rented our own space for
worship and meetings. We are intentional about being inclusive, about respecting the
history and faith-journey of all who come among us; it seems to me that there is a
rare level of honesty and sacred listening, a group suspicion of easy answers and
The majority of our members are involved in vocations (nursing, teaching,
social work, care-giving, advocacy) and/or volunteer work (AIDS, lesbian and gay
community issues, survivor issues) in which they live out their faith and commitment.
I am involved with this community as friend, fellow-traveler, and pastor; they are the
base community within which I do this theological reflection. The majority of
members are also quite "out", openly purple at work and in public discourse; some
have felt the very high price of this. Thorn Rock and Jim Biernat have not only lost
housing and employment for loving each other as gay men; they tell of the times that
people drove by in trucks, shooting at their house.
Marked by our histories
One of the insights of liberation theology is that the claim to intellectual
"objectivity" is bogus, and the claim to derive universal truth on the basis of that
objectivity is more fraudulent still. We are marked and influenced, for good and ill,
by our own histories; our backgrounds and experience are the raw data for all of the
assumptions we make about our lives. If one of the advantages of working from
within communities of praxis is the opportunity to be "heard into speech" about the
truths of our lives, as Nelle Morton observed (2); an equally important benefit is the
challenge and testing which group process provides.
2 Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home, (Boston, Beacon Press, 1985), 16-
In terms of my own background, I am a white, middle-class, midwestern-born
and raised, lesbian mother of three young adult daughters; I did not acknowledge my
sexuality to myself until after a long marriage; I was an active Episcopal laywoman for
over thirty years, and in business data processing for twenty-five.
When I came out as a lesbian, it evoked a theological crisis which, in turn,
drove me to question my assumptions about authority in the church. From there,
other authority and "verities" were easier to challenge. Sisters and brothers doing
liberation theology have helped me to see that we are called beyond our "own" justice
issues into solidarity with other communities as we work for different structures which
will better enable justice for all persons.
A "click experience"
It is a revelation for those of us who hold relative privilege to experience
oppression; it produces what Katie Geneva Cannon calls "a click experience", when
we catch on to a new insight. Given the "click", I can see that our society is not the
benign, generous one I imagined as a child. We are, as a nation, addicted to luxuries
while others starve, while mothers in Brazil make "cakes" of newspaper and water for
their children to fill their stomachs and avoid the dreadful pain of hunger.
A key concept of liberation theology, that God is on the side of the
oppressed, cuts two ways for most of us who are white, North American lesbians and
gays: we can draw courage from the sense that God embraces our struggles for justice
and against bigotry. On the other hand, we must recognize that often, in this world,
we are the ones who hold power, who consent to, and benefit from, the injustice,
poverty, racism and economic skew of our world. Rephrasing Pogo's one-liner, we
have met the oppressor and it is us. Doing liberation theology, then, for those of us
who hold privilege, calls us to repentance as well as to action.
Obvious (and not so obvious) indebtedness:
Many good friends remind me of the ongoing nature of my debt to Anglicans.
In particular, Mary Simpson, friend and therapist, and Carter Heyward, friend and
teacher, have provided, over the years, much of the viewpoint and empowerment
from which I write. Dorothy, Martha, and Kate Weber, my three daughters, are
ongoing gift in my life. Over the last four years, I have been taught, coached, and
supported increasingly by women and men in MCC, particularly by Joseph Gilbert,
Darlene Garner, Adam DeBaugh and Jeffrey Pulling, by the PSD and CLOUT
caucuses, and by my cherished friends and community of MCC in the Mountains.
Questions for discussion:
1. What communities and persons support you, and to whom are you
2. Can you share the most important things in your life in these
3. What has your spiritual journey been?
4. What would "liberation" look like for you?
PRELIMINARIES: PURPLE PEOPLE IN A PURPLE CHURCH
NAMING OURSELVES AS PURPLE:
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY THAT WE ARE LESBIANS, GAYMEN,
BISEXUALS, TRANSSEXUALS, TRANS GENDERED?
"I am what I am..."
Less than three months after I had acknowledged to myself that I was
lesbian, while I was still trying to decide what that meant to and for me, a friend
suggested that we go see La Cage awe Folks on Broadway. I had no idea that I was in
for a night of tender and outrageous camp, and found myself struggling to deal with
the lead character of Albin, a flamboyant gay transvestite, a professional crossdresser,
whose self-care in distress is to "put a little more mascara on..." His lover's son has
decided to marry a young woman who is the daughter of a right-wing politician.
Albin 's reaction: "What did we do wrong?" Since the son has not explained anything
about his family to his fiancee's family, and desperately wants to impress them on
their visit, father and son ask Albin to cooperate by hiding their relationship, passing
himself off as just a friend, and behaving in a stereotypical masculine manner. This is
so foreign to his style that they have to coach him on how to do it: "Think of John
Reflecting on this whole problem, and upset at the idea, he is about to go on
stage for a show, fully (and convincingly) cross-dressed, and stops, rips off the wig,
throws it down, and begins singing slowly, softly, in a low register, pulling us into the
full pain of this requested deception and self-disavowal: "I am what I am", he struggles
tentatively, and the song builds in conviction and tempo, ending triumphantly in his
certainty: "Life's not worth a damn if you can't say, 'I am what I am.'"
Since I believe that part of our calling, part of our being lured to
wholeness/holiness by the Spirit, is precisely the integration of all the pieces of our
lives in fulfillment of our vocation and uniqueness, this song — which moved me to
tears when I first heard it - speaks to me of the grace and wholeness/holiness/
healing which is possible in the process that we call "coming out", the progressive
process of naming who we are to ourselves, to our communities of support and
accountability, and in greater and greater consistency being one person in the whole
of our lives.
This chapter is a reflection on "coming out" as an experience, as a process, on
what it means to name ourselves as "Purple" in any of the variations of "purple-ness" ,
on what the friends who share their stories with me seem to be saying. I acknowledge
the inevitable limitations of my own particularities as a white, North American,
middle-class, middle-aged woman who has only been "out" to myself for six and a half
years. But the experience (and potential, as gift) of being "Purple" is a critical piece
of our lives; the experience of coming to terms with that is equally important; the
discovery of and entry into purple community is key. We are talking about a psycho/
sexual/social journey, also a theological one, one which has moved me to a more
political and transformative (liberation) stance. Along the way, we also redefine
notions of what "purple" is. At first, it seems most logical to many to take an
essentialist stance: Patricia Unruh says "I think I was born lesbian," and liberal
friends like Episcopal Bishop John S. Spong find it easy to defend our civil and
ecclesiastical rights if we can be described as having no choice. At the end of this
chapter, I will look at this essentialist position, and then at another position, which
can be characterized as an argument for "deconstruction", a suggestion that the
dominant heterosexual (and heterosexist) culture has constructed the entire
intellectual framework of ideas like "lesbian" and "straight", and that therefore we
may want to look at ideas of being "born gay" with a suspicion that the real function of
such an idea may be to allow the majority to be assured that they were "born straight".
This illustrates the ground of our disconnection with society: that we act (or may act)
and choose to act sexually and relationally against societal norms established by male
heterosexuals to maintain patriarchy. Finally, I will argue for the glorious uniqueness
of each of us, and that, as we enter into relationships in communities of mutuality, we
discover this uniqueness — even that it is vocation - and thus each one of us can say,
with Albin, "I am what I am."
For a piece of this chapter, let us share our stories, let us remember together,
let us hear each other into speech, and listen to the words we find we are saying.
Perhaps you will write poetry; perhaps you will draw a picture; perhaps you will sing,
or remember a particular place or a moment; perhaps you will cry; perhaps you will
hold a picture, an old photograph, in your hands; perhaps you are still close to those
who were with you in parts of your coming out, and it may be the hand of a friend, a
lover, that you hold in your hand as you tell the story. "What was it like for you,
coming out?" we ask each other; and in the responses (the when, the where, the how,
the what-ness of what is selected) we tell a great deal about ourselves, because we are
speaking of a sacred moment, a moment when we knew, and acknowledged, ourselves
in a new way, a coming-of-age, a moment in a movement toward wholeness and
therefore holiness. I do not think, by the way, that only purple people tell coming-out
stories. The classic stories and plays about first loves - I think of Summer of '42 and
Brighton Beach - even the set-piece ways that the supporting characters in Gilbert
and Sullivan operettas or Shakespeare comedies end up in love with each other are,
in a way, coming-out stories.
"Before I came out..."
"Before I came out," said a friend, a gay man, "I thought that it was only when
I was exhausted, or under stress, that I felt a nearly uncontrollable attraction to men."
Before / came out, I wondered when I would feel a nearly uncontrollable attraction to
The gay men and lesbians, transsexuals and bisexuals I know use language
like this; we can speak of a time "before" we came to think of ourselves as we do now.
Some of the men I know can muse "I think I've always known"; one speaks of his crush
on a third grade teacher, another of the wonder of a sensitive aunt who gave him
what he really wanted for a birthday, a child-sized china tea set. Perhaps it is because
the rules are so strict for boy-children: the china tea set is much more forbidden to a
boy than tree-climbing is for a girl. My gay male friends also speak of the
unmistakeable and often embarassing physicality of their response. I could have a
passionate crush on the captain of the school field hockey team, but it was only an
ache in my throat; teenage boys can know a much more definitive response in the
nakedness of the locker room.
Because I tend to hear coming-out stories within the context of an affirming
community, there is a celebratory tenor to them. We talk of a moment of "knowing"
within a process of self-understanding. Even with the whimsical tone which the
stories carry, we also remember some of the angst, the panic of seeing ourselves as
gay, as lesbian, as bisexual or transsexual. And we can understand why some choose
to stay in denial, why some suicide. In coming-out, we recognize ourselves as the
people whom our society taught us to hate.
Betsy Ross at the bar...
I had been getting ready to come out for longer than I knew, wondering for
several years whether or not I might be lesbian. Since I "knew" that there were only a
few lesbians in the whole world, all butch and tough, it seemed impossible; surely not
I, a mild, naive mid western single parent. The idea kept tickling the edges of my
mind, though, so I began to browse through the local libraries, without, of course,
taking any of the books out — what would the librarian think?
Sometimes in the evening I would go to Bryn Mawr College, and sit on the
floor in the lesbian/gay section of the stacks, my reading punctuated by trips to the
end of the row of shelving each time the automatic timers turned the lights out. In a
growing awareness that the experience I was reading about resonated, in some way,
with a part of me, I wished that I could explore further. What would happen, I
wondered, if I just got in a cab in downtown Philadelphia and said "take me to the gay
area." Actually, I could have just gone to a meeting of the Haverford/Bryn Mawr
lesbian/gay caucus, but that was too scary; I still "knew" that nice girls didn't.
One night at a colleague's supper-party, the group began to talk about one
woman's recent break-up with a lover. I listened with disinterest that grew into
tension; no name (like "George") was used, nor were there any personal pronouns. It
was done smoothly, for these women taught English for a living, but how long could
we go before one of them said "he" or "him"? Was it possible that what they weren't
saying was "she" and "her"? "Aha!", I thought, feeling like a game hunter following
spoor in the jungle, "I think I found one!" I asked the woman later if she was lesbian,
then asked her if she would be a resource for me.
For the next six weeks, she opened the way for me gently, answering my
questions, sharing her books, introducing me to her friends. Finally, they decided it
was time for me to go to a lesbian bar. Sure that it would be dreadful, surer still that
we would all be arrested ("FLASH: Mom jailed in Philadelphia lesbian bar raid"), I
met them for dinner and then walked over to the bar, which was down a little alley
and had an unmarked door. I could have been more original than to tell the bouncer
that I was "Elizabeth Ross", after which I blushed and wondered if he would make
some crack about George and Martha waiting downstairs with the material for the
flag, but he just took my money and logged me in. When we got downstairs I saw a
very pleasant pink room, a friendly group of women mingling around a large oval bar.
My friends found us a table, got drinks, and went off to dance; I sat, looking around,
amazed at the ordinariness of it. These women could be the field hockey players and
camp counselors that I had always loved — oops - until then I had always called it a
crush, and assumed that I would grow out of them. I remember thinking, "these
women are lesbian, and so am I." Intellectually, in a moment, I was out. It would
take much longer to come out sexually (and I could almost see a host of watchers
surrounding the bed the first time I held a woman: parents, former in-laws, nuns,
children, even my little dachsund with his front paws on the mattress).
I want to pause and honor my transexal and transgendered friends; theirs is
a coming-out that is even more complex. In the linguistic usage of the TS/TG
community I know, transsexuals are convinced that they are at odds with the physical
sexuality of their bodies, and go through a long process of shifting their bodies into
line with their sense of themselves. Male-to-female transsexuals take hormonal
treatments, do electrolysis and then several surgical procedures, to accomplish this
realignment. I was privileged by the friendship of a physicist in transition; I first knew
Rick, then watched the growing changes, then heard her gentle statement that it was
"time to present myself as Rica". She images a pilgrimage for me, the search for the
pearl of great price. I think of her journey over three years; I remember the practical
wisdoms, like how to get a new driver's license. "How did you get the courage to do
all this?" I asked once. "It isn't courage to jump out of a burning building," she said.
Part of the strength has come from her community, a small group who support each
other, some of whose members stay on after their surgeries and lifechanges are
complete, in order to help newcomers.
All purple people, and all those who stand in solidarity with us, have coming-
out stories which are worth telling, and worth hearing.
It took me a long time to come out theologically, to learn to trust that God
was ok about my being lesbian. None of the friends who had helped bring me out
were Christian. My therapist told me that she knew lesbian priests in Manhattan, and
I met with one, who sent me back to Philadelphia to a gay priest. In virtually every
denomination in this country, there is an invisible network, a caring and supportive
group. The problem for the outsider, of course, is finding it, and this is compounded
by fear. Together, we do the serious and critical work of discovering that God loves
us as we are, of discerning what it is that we are called to become.
The institutional church (save for rare cases like MCC) is, at best, less than
minimally helpful; and this is appalling. I have a new friend, seriously ill with AIDS;
he and his life-partner have taken in other men with AIDS, have given them a home
through the final phase. In August, a Roman Catholic priest refused this man
absolution because he would not break off the relationship. It reads like one of Jesus'
parables: the priest, who doesn't take in the homeless, refuses to acknowledge the
love of God for a man who does.
MCC was brought into existence after our founder, Troy Perry, visited a
friend in despair who said "God can't love me". Troy had a strong sense of call from
God to found a church where all people would be accepted, and did so; today we
have over 270 churches around the world. If "the medium is the message", then the
existence of communities of purple Christians is the medium of the message that it is
possible. As I write, MCC Philadelphia members are praying, wherever they happen
to be, at seven in the morning and seven at night, for a former vice-moderator who is
hospitalized and dying. Phil's last gift to this congregation is a "something" which is
happening among them as they surround him with their love. Even as they are nearly
overcome with grief, something new is being born among them while they talk and
pray and weep together and touch each other in support. The experience of a
community of faith where mutuality is lived out, where purple relationships are
valued, where our differences are accepted, where good role modeling occurs, and
where all this is as ordinary as church suppers, is incredibly healing for all of us.
Coming out — naming ourselves as purple - is also a social journey. Men and
women gulp for the courage to tell family members. A national support group,
PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gay men), is not only there for our
parents, but gives workshops for us to prepare to tell our families. Those of us who
are parents ourselves share support with each other as we come out to our children,
unofficially, and through groups like Gay Fathers.
Coming out, for me, has had a very important feedback mechanism; as I
have been out longer and to more people, I am more comfortable about being
lesbian; I decline to feel guilty or despise myself; this very ease supports further
comings out. But I can remember the terror at many of the steps, and I understand
why most of us choose to stay more closeted; I have eaten with suburban
Philadelphians whose community can fit around a dining room table; I have buried a
man whose community consisted of his lover, one lesbian, and the druggist; a straight
priest friend tells me sadly of a man in rural Maryland who found no community: he
came out in his suicide note.
Pause, now, for the first discussion questions: What was it like for you to
come out? Where are you still coming out? Where is God, where is the church in
Hospitality, creativity, liberation:
I believe that we share, as purple people, in three gifts common to most
oppressed peoples, the gifts of hospitality, creativity, and a call to liberation. We
intuitively recognize hospitality as a survival issue, just as people on the frontier, or in
the desert do. I have been passed along networks in the church where the only
contact was the name of a friend, and the immediate response was generous, and
sustained, support. Played out vocationally, our gift of hospitality puts many of us in
the community into careers as care-givers. John McNeill spoke in a Kirkridge
presentation about the number of purple people who were clergy, health-care
providers, social workers, and teachers; and then, to prove his point, asked the
audience, a group of lesbian and gay Christians, to raise their hands if they fit into
those categories. Nearly 95% of the group had their hands up.
This ties to a sense of community that Thorn Rock and Patricia Unruh were
getting at when we talked in a discussion. They both spoke, poignantly, of the pain of
growing up with a sense that they did not resonate to what was expected by their
families, churches, and schools, that they were disconnected from these communities.
Thorn went on to talk about feeling also disconnected from the image of the gay
community that was presented to him, saying "I knew I wasn't like that." Then he
brought it together for us, with his comment that "In finding gay and lesbian
community, I moved from disconnectedness into community, into mutuality."
The gift of creativity roots, I think, in our survival need to break free,
mentally, in an impossible situation. Consider the intellectual task we all have, one
that we do unaided by society. At some point in our coming-out, if we are to live
joyous lives, and not beat ourselves up for who we are, we have to deal with the fact
that what society and the church taught us was wrong. If we can break through to this
realization, it is enormously freeing, and catapults us into a fecund creativity. No
wonder we have scores of artists, writers, thinkers, and musicians among us.
Further, if society was wrong about us, what else is it wrong about? This is a
revolutionary concept. We are forced, for mere emotional survival, to sit loose to
"truth", to "but this is the way it is", to "this is the way it has always been done". Like
other oppressed minorities, we carry the seeds of a liberating suspicion of the current
social order. So we have the potential for alternative visions of society, for prophecy,
for politics and transformation. For me, even little steps toward liberation come
from, and give strength to, the purpleness in my soul. Because we come to realize
that we need liberation, we can begin to work for and claim that liberation, not only
for ourselves but in solidarity with other oppressed groups. I believe that this is not
only a gift to us as purple people, it is a communal vocation.
Closeted gay men and lesbians won't go anywhere near the June Pride
parades, for fear that someone might see them; others of us go to the marches,
usually travelling to another city for our first one. It is a mind-expanding,
consciousness-raising experience: the numbers of people, the variety, the joy, the
vitality. As we journey in community, we come to enjoy being purple, to take a pride
in it. One turning point in the redefinition for me came when I watched Darlene
Garner bounce a grandchild on her knee and ask, "Are you going to be my little
lesbian?" One of the few benefits of the AIDS crisis has been the increasing — and
deserved — respect which the purple community has earned, in our own minds and in
the minds of others, for the way we have handled the crisis, the way we have cared for
each other. I can even see my own children redefining purpleness, see them moving
from shame to a matter-of-factness and even pride about me. "Would it," I asked
tentatively last year, "be ok with you if I joined a group of women nationally and my
name was in a press release for CLOUT (Christian Lesbians OUT together)?" One
after another, they said, "If it hits the press, I want a copy."
But beyond pride, what does it mean to "be purple"? At various points, our
families have assured us that we would get over it, or that it came from a bad
experience, or sent us to therapists (or worse — one woman I know was
institutionalized for electroshock treatments). People routinely ask us why we think
we turned out purple. [Fantasy answer: "Gee, just lucky, I guess; whatever led you to
forget that it was nice to be held by a woman?"] This brings us to the whole
discussion of "how" and "why", and the response of essentialism. But as we look at the
essentialist position, we need to realize that some are framing the question
differently: the poststructuralists are asking "so who benefits by this definition of
difference?", and we will look at that question after we consider essentialism.
Essentialism: "I think I was just born gay"
Essentialism has a satisfying ease about it. If I take an essentialist stance, I
assume that, within the continuum from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively
homosexual which Kinsey developed in 1948, I will be able to describe myself as
fitting into some "slot", some numerical position, describle with the same scientific
assurance that we report mountain altitudes and laboratory results. Some folks are
heterosexual, and some are gay. Given the essentialist position, "something caused"
each person to drop into the place where they are on the scale, and it is only a matter
of time until we realize whether it is hormonal, or glandular, or chromosonal. Kinsey,
himself, did not see it this simply:
The histories which have been available in the present study make it
apparent that the heterosexuality or homosexuality of many individuals is
not an all-or-none proposition...
Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into
separated pigeon holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every
one of its aspects. (1)
Yet others press for an essentialist definition. Episcopal Bishop John S.
Spong states the essentialist position in his book, Living in Sin:
Specifically, research consistently seems to support the assertion that sexual
orientation is not a matter of choice; that it is not related to any
environmental influence; that it is not the result of an overbearing mother
or an effeminate or absent father or a seductive sexual encounter. Some
researchers are finding that certain biochemical events during prenatal life
may determine adult sexual orientation, and that once set it is not amenable
to change. (2)
This same argument resurfaces this year, with research backing on the size of
the INAH3 section of the hypothalamus as studied in forty-one cadavers by Simon
LeVay of the Salk Institute at La Jolla, California. Arguing that because the gay
men's INAH3 section was half the size of heterosexual's INAH3 section, LeVay said
that homosexuality was "destiny, not choice", as quoted in a Newsweek cover article,
1 Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior
in the Human Male, (Philadelphia, W.B. Saunders, 1948), 638-639. The same
argument is repeated in the 1953 study of women, Institute for Sex Research, Indiana
University, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, (Philadelphia, W.B. Saunders,
2 John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality,
(San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1988), 71-72.
"Born or Bred: The Origins of Homosexuality" (3). The article also noted a study by
Richard Pillard and Michael Bailey of gay twins. If these arguments are sound, then
justice for lesbians and gay men is appropriate, because we didn't do anything wrong
to result in our being purple; following the AIDS argument, we are "innocent victims"
— and so are our parents and loved ones. The argument accounts for bisexuals (who
are midpoint on the scale), and can be paralleled for transsexuals and transgendered
persons. Further, "coming-out" is a matter of finding and affirming our reality.
Coming-out stories, told in an essentialist manner, tend to polarize sexual orientation,
tend to revision the past as laden with harbinger-clues, tend to blur the real
complexity and polymorphous quality of human sexuality. For a number of years, I
stood in this essentialist camp quite comfortably. So also did many of the
congregation, as they told their own stories.
But now, let us look at the social-construction argument, which recognizes
plurality of sexual responses, and adds the recognition that the entire discussion is
being conducted with linguistic categories which are freighted with hidden meanings,
value judgements, and power dynamics. We didn't invent these loaded linguistic
categories, and we find that they serve someone else's power. Why do we have to
explain ourselves, for instance, to ask for and demand equal rights? The issue may
well be that when we (or anyone) acts in a way which challenges the dominant social
norm of heterosexual patriarchy, or the sacred-cow status of the male-headed, nuclear
family, we challenge the presuppositions which glue our society together. The very
3 David Gelman, Donna Foote, Tod Barrett, and Mary Talbot, "Born or
Bred: The Origins of Homosexuality", Newsweek, CXIX no. 8, (Feb. 24, 1992), 46-53.
It is worth noticing that because of the "or" in the title, the authors also devoted over
a page to psychologists who claim to "cure" homosexuals. The cover picture hit at the
guts of all heterosexual dominant culture North Americans: the face of a pink-
cheeked blonde, blue-eyed white baby (why did the child strike me as male?) was
shown filling the cover. Cover title: "Is this Child Gay?"
amount of energy spent on maintaining this norm suggests that it is, in and of itself,
fragile. LeVay's study has been criticized by scientists who notice that the brain
changes as we live differently - specifically, that areas grow when they are used - and
therefore the results are arguable that sexual behavior affects INAH3 size, not vice
So how would I recognize a social construct if I met it at lunch?
Easy. Most of our most prejudiced statements float on the water of a
"reality" which is constructed and defined by society. "Women are naturally
nurturing" is either reality or a social construct; those in power (men in this case) are
more likely to assume it as reality, and those disenfranchised by the construct may be
able to see it as one image of reality, not as reality itself.
What's the point of a social construct? Those with power in societies tend to
direct the creation of group-consciousness, group belief, and language itself. As
language and ideas are shaped, they bear (or make it impossible to imagine)
meaning, and become carriers of our conception of reality. We really did learn most
of what we know before the end of kindergarten, as we inhaled the assumptions and
values of our society: women should be good wives and mothers, and are a little dizzy;
men should be strong and brave and never, never cry; anyone can grow up to be
President if he will work hard and learn to color inside the lines; the lives of children
who don't go to our school are very similar to ours. We learned all this, and we
believed all this, and only much later do we recognize, if at all, that we were inhaling
an image of reality which was constructed by our society — which was "Made in
America" - which was, indeed, made in white, middle-class North America. If we are
old enough, we not only remember "truths" about persons of color, we also
remember "truths" about Roman Catholics and Pentecostals.
Our societal image of sexuality, as well as our understandings of how we
determine truth, are social constructs. Those in power (and their supporters) define
the language, define the rules of the debate, define the meanings, define the reality.
What I had learned by sixth grade was that "fairies wear green on Thursdays",
conveyed to me in a hush-hush tone of horror. I didn't know what a fairy was, but it
was clear that I didn't want to be one, so I would carry my green Girl Scout uniform
to school in a paper bag and slip it on just before the meeting. It is not accidental
that at the very same time I was learning to fear homosexuals, I was being socialized
into heterosexual behavior with spin-the-bottle games, dancing school, and tea-
Social constructs not only provide most of our images of reality, they benefit
the power elite by conditioning and limiting the discussion. In a glaring example of
this, the right-wing Wycliffe Bible Translators, who go into Central American jungles
looking for cultures without written language and provide translations of the Bible for
them, (sounds good so far, right?), are assertively shaping the futures of these cultures
as they provide the written language. Even though the words for "conflict" or
"revolution" may be present in the oral language, these are left out of the bilingual
lexicon which is created. Sample word-in-context exercises which we remember from
childhood workbooks provide more ways to construct reality for the people of the
jungle: Sara Diamond quotes from Wycliffe materials: "right": "a man has a right to
punish his children when they behave poorly." (4) If that's what "right" means, we
have entered into a new reality.
4 Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right,
(Boston, South End Press, 1989), 219.
Suppose we recognize the notions of "gay" or "bisexual" or "lesbian" as the
social constructs which they are. Whose power is served? I suggest that the power of
heterosexist, sexist, dominant males is served, because we are defined as "other", as
doing the unthinkable when we do not love in carefully designed, heterosexual,
hierarchical relationships. We are not only defined as doing the unthinkable; if we
shared enough coming-out stories, we heard how unthinkable it was for us. So the
social construction of reality, in this country, enables heterosexual men to declare that
they are "essentially" good and straight, and to declare that others (that's us, folks) are
"essentially" different (for which read bad, and other). Pause, for a moment here, and
listen to that again. If we are "born" into categories which bifurcate into
straight/purple, and these categories are coterminous with good/bad, then
essentialism does not serve us particularly well. We need to mount a critique of the
categories and the thinking behind this structure. Even if a genetic basis for human
sexuality is discovered, it is unlikely that the prejudice which we experience will
change. "Blackness" as a social construction oppresses and digs at the lives of African
Americans, but it is not genes that are at issue, it is racism.
Carter Hey ward, reading this paper, suggested that I extend the analysis of
the social construction of sexuality further to include the notion that our eroticism
itself is, in part, socially constructed. We do not have to go far in talking to men and
women with different backgrounds, or spend very long in an art musuem or library, to
realize that erotic responses vary between societies and communities. Think of the
difference between the image of woman evoked in the courtly love poems of the
middle ages and the image of woman evoked by Cher. What did it mean for peace in
our country when the leather bomber jackets of World War II were reproduced for
the Air Force and then flooded unto the market as macho and sexy? What is
involved when we are taught to respond erotically to violent men and helpless
women, when images of half-naked women are used to sell bluejeans and booze?
What would our defense budget look like, what would happen to the figures on
domestic violence, if Mr. Rodgers, not Rambo, were presented as the normative man,
if we thought gentleness, not violence, was sexy? Not surprisingly, the images of the
erotic in the dominant culture bleed over into ours: in The Lesbian Erotic Dance,
reviewing data about lesbian eroticism from a survey of 589 women, Joanne Loulan
notes the erotic spark for some women across butch/femme polarities, for others
around acting out violence and submission. (5)
In a society differently constructed, I posit, I would still probably choose
women as partners in my most intimate and personal connections, but I would do it
knowing from childhood that that was a perfectly viable option, and that the ethical
issue was the manner of mutuality and compassion with which we engaged each
other, not the particularities of genital distribution.
In our society, where heterosexism and sexism serve each other's agenda and
both serve the power elite, we can expect that dominant social constructions about
our issues (sexual orientation, families, HIV, to name a few) will not serve us, and it
is this which leads us to be suspicious of them, to deconstruct these emperor-ideas-
without-clothes, and to construct alternate visions of reality which do serve us and
those with whom we stand in solidarity.
I am what I am... (reprise)
"But I want to say that I'm lesbian..." Sure. And many of us will still feel, in
our deepest guts, that our sexuality as we understand it and experience it has been a
part of our experience for years, even when we lacked the language to describe it.
5 JoAnn Loulan, The Lesbian Erotic Dance, (San Francisco, Spinsters
Book Company, 1990).
We can rejoice in it, and in the community of those of us who are purple, who share
the experience of being "sexually other" by society's definition, and who share
compassion and support and a wacky, campy humor about the whole thing.
We will also learn that the neat categorization which labels us as "other" is
someone else's making and someone else's agenda, and therefore that we can look at
our sexuality as one, but not the only or sole, self-definitional notion. We are purple,
and share that, yes. We form community as such. But we are tall, short, and in-
between; musical, tone-deaf, and in-between; black, pink, and other; young, old, and
in-between; interested in trains and baseball and fossils and art; in short, we are an
incredibly rich, incredibly diverse community of complex, surprising, unique
individuals. We are each "who we are", and that includes, but encompasses far more
than, our sexual orientation.
Questions for discussion: (Questions 1-3 were posed midpoint in the text.)
1 . What was it like for you to come out?
2. Where are you still coming out?
3. Where is God, where is the church in this?
4. Were you "born purple"? And what does/can that mean to you?
MCC AS A "PURPLE CHURCH": SNAPSHOTS FROM THE FAMILY ALBUM
In this chapter, we continue the preliminaries, setting the stage for the work
we do together, and look at MCC as a "purple church", as one community of faith for
the sexual minority. The chapter is not an attempt at a formal history, but rather is a
word-collage which tries to capture a sense of MCC in terms of our mission, some of
our history, and some of the issues critical for us at this point, as I see them. What is
our calling and ministry? What is it that marks us as MCC? What led Troy Perry to
found the church? When were we nearly overwhelmed by the realization of the
Spirit among us? What are the key issues for us today?
Nothing unexpected about the combination of purple and Christian...
What is our calling and ministry? What is it about us as "a" purple church
which tempts me to call us "the" purple church? And who needs purple church
anyway? It is true that today most mainline denominations have denominational
purple caucuses (1), and that, at the level of individual congregational choice, there
are increasingly ways for churches to define themselves as pro-purple, such as the
1 The oldest, and to my knowledge the largest, is Dignity, for Roman
Catholics, founded in 1969. Others include Unitarian/Universalists for Lesbian and
Gay Concerns, founded in 1971; American Baptists Concerned, Friends for Lesbian
and Gay Concerns, and United Church Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Concerns,
founded in 1972; Integrity (Episcopal) and Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay
Concerns, founded in 1974; Affirmation (United Methodists for Lesbian and Gay
Concerns) and Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, founded
in 1976; Affirmation (Gay and Lesbian Mormons) and New Ways Ministry (Roman
Catholic), founded in 1977; Lutherans Concerned, and Evangelicals United.
"Reconciling Congregations" of the United Methodist Church, or the "Open and
Affirming Congregations" within the United Church of Christ. Jim Bretz and Richard
Cowing of MCC in the Mountains, led their other church family, a UCC congregation
in Plymouth, New Hampshire, through a three year process of discussions and
education in preparation for that congregation's 1992 vote to become the first Open
and Affirming UCC in the state.
Nor is MCC the only faith community to define itself as purple church; in
many cities there are independent churches serving the sexual minority community.
But we are the largest and oldest church serving the purple community, as well as the
one with the greatest world-wide presence. Just this year, representatives from
Russia and Czechoslovakia have met with MCC leaders about new missions in those
countries. Today we are in forty-seven of the fifty United States, and we have sixteen
churches in Canada, ten each in Australia and the United Kingdom, six in Nigeria,
three each in Mexico and New Zealand, as well as churches in Argentina, Chile,
Denmark, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Indonesia, the Netherlands,
Northern Ireland, the Philippines, and Poland.
This is an awesome, mind-boggling spread for a church that is less than
twenty-five years old, and numerically small. By comparison, MCC, with two hundred
and seventy churches and twenty-seven thousand members in eighteen countries,
served by slightly over three hundred clergy (2), has a membership slightly less than
2 Source: Kittredge Cherry, UFMCC offices, Los Angeles, phone
conversation, April, 1992.
the Episcopal Church's baptized members in Rhode Island, about two times the
number of clergy, and four times as many parishes. (3)
Why MCC? Amidst all of our diversity, one thing is common: in MCCs
across the world, there is nothing unusual, nothing surprising about our being purple
and being Christian, about our being fully who we are in the whole of our lives, in our
relationships with those we love and with God. Consistently, we teach that this
integration is part of holiness.
Most North American churches are anti-purple in much of their theology and
many of their actions. I suggest that, to serve purple congregants adequately, a faith
community should provide at least the following: (a) theology, scripture (and
extended scripture), sacraments and rites, program, ethos and education (including
church-school level education) which affirm the goodness and life-giving nature of
our lives and relationships; (b) affirmative action in selection of leadership so that
self-affirming purple women and men of all racial backgrounds are represented in the
leadership at all levels; (c) social outreach and political support in areas of concern to
our people; and (d) support for our families. This is minimal. No mainline
denomination comes close. Someone entering a MCC, wherever it is in the world,
however large or small it is, whatever liturgical and theological tilt the church has, has
entered a congregation where the axiomatic understanding is that it is good to be
purple. I probably am never more sure about why I am in MCC than when I celebrate
a holy union or preach a funeral. I believe that this celebration and affirmation of
ourselves as we are, this conviction that God's call to us is to be who we are, is the
most significant mark of MCC.
3 E. Allen Kelley, ed., The Episcopal Church Annual 1991, (Harrisburg,
PA, Morehouse Publishing Co., 1991), "Table of Statistics of the Episcopal Church
[for 1989]" Rhode Island: 31,900 baptized members, 173 clergy, 65 congregations.
One realizes the difference in the "yes, but" quality of the most affirming
mainline churches: as was true at EDS this fall, "Yes, you may be in significant
relationships as students at the seminary, but don't expect to use the chapel to
celebrate your mutual commitment." "Yes, but", I submit, is oppressive and feeds the
dragons of self-hate which gnaw at our insides and lives. And the glory of MCC is
that it does not say "yes, but"; it consistently says "yes!"
Further, as we say this "yes!", we choose to be highly visible about it: almost
as part of our preparation, MCC mentors coach us on using media. I remember
standing on the steps of the Federal Building in Philadelphia with my senior pastor,
Joseph Gilbert, as he talked with a TV reporter about doing the stations of the cross
in the context of the AIDS crisis. My heart was in my throat and I wondered if I
would have a job on Monday, but it was an important lesson in the public role of
This public role is tied to our sense that we are the default church of the
purple community. "Can someone do a funeral for my Eddie?" "We've only met
once, but can you come over to Hitchcock [Hospital] and talk to my partner?" "We'd
like to have a holy union this summer. " It seems to me that as much as fifty per cent
of our time is spent in outreach to women and men who may never come to regular
services, and I often compare us to the role that the Church of England plays in the
United Kingdom as the church for those who have no other.
Students of liberation theology will recognize, immediately, that we have the
seeds of base communities as we gather in support and reflection and action. I began
a poem last year, trying to catch the flavor of the MCC congregations I knew.
One man gets thinner, wasting and waiting;
another is afraid to get tested.
We were the community who rejoiced, and wept, and witnessed
when two men, one symptomatic, one negative
promised their lives to each other for as long as they had them.
We were the community who welcomed, housed, and then buried
the homeless gay man whom the pastor found on the street.
He came to our Bible study and told us
that he had been cured of his homosexuality,
but he needed a family, so we were it.
A former Baptist holds her Bible close to her.
When she gets blinding headaches from the terrible memories
we lay hands on her and pray
and the headaches go away.
And then we say, gently,
"You've got to take care of yourself,
and reduce what stress you can;
You can't ask God for miracles this often."
Two lovers touch, Black hand to white as they come for communion.
A former Roman Catholic seminarian's voice breaks
as she says the words of the canon for the first time;
she almost goes into the Latin she learned as a boy;
and we understand her joy and her wonder.
A woman weeps in the pain of past abuse, and is heard, — and safe.
We pray for one man's mother,
for the ghetto kids that a woman teaches,
for a night job so a cook can go to school.
A lawyer in the congregation has told us he is available for those who cannot pay;
he reschedules an afternoon
to explain medical directives at a bedside.
The tall man needs to pray in tongues,
and teaches the man from the shelter how to do it.
A young woman grieves over a lover lost to a local rugby star.
The Pakistani chemist comes to be with us;
"I'm not Christian, you know," he says,
"but I like to be with you."
Sometimes the only hug an old man in the back gets all week is at the Peace,
except that I try to hold him
because he is so loving, and so gentle, and even radiant.
A man comes in shattered with a new diagnosis
and is pulled into the quiet network of support,
those who are positive but choose not to speak of it publicly yet.
In the midst of this the Sacred Spirit heals.
These are my people.
We are being made alive, and we know it.
In the midst is the Sacred Spirit,
Who is our hope and salvation.
The Sacred Spirit broods...
and makes whole...
and even joy.
We learn to be community for each other:
a man living with AIDS,
a woman living with the memory of incest,
women losing their children, or afraid of it,
men losing their jobs, or afraid of it,
transsexuals who work up the courage to tell us their new first name,
or to go get a new job,
or even a new driver's license,
as their new selves,
women and men who demonstrate against budget cuts,
or stand with ACT UP
or walk with women through picket lines at clinics
In the community there is not just love,
there is a fierce proud joy,
when we celebrate each other's courage,
each other's victories,
each other's companionship
and a wacky purple humor,
poking at the life we lead on the margins.
And we learn to dance with the Spirit on those margins,
learning steps of love,
A church born in a watermelon-pink house in Los Angeles
Every year in August, students preparing for ministry in MCC end up in Los
Angeles, for a two-week practicum which includes a bus tour of our holy places,
including a stop across the street from the house on Miles Avenue in Huntington
Park where MCC had its first service on October 6, 1968. Troy Perry, our founder,
had been a Florida-born, Pentecostal minister until he was divorced and
excommunicated for his sexuality. In the sixties, he moved to Los Angeles, ending up
in Huntington Park, renting one-half of the watermelon pink house, working at Sears.
One night, in despair, he attempted suicide, and was rushed to the hospital by his
roommate and housemates. A nurse spoke to him in the emergency room:
"I don't know why you did this," the woman said as my eyes turned up
toward hers, "but what you did tonight was crazy — why don't you look up?"
With my Pentecostal background, I knew the nurse's words meant, "Why
don't you get your act together and get in touch with God?" (4)
As Troy prayed that night, and again the next morning, he felt sense of peace
and joy he had not known for five years, so much so that he was worried, and began a
conversation with God as only Troy could have:
"Wait a minute, God!" I exclaimed. "I don't know what you expect from me -
- I'm still a homosexual - a practicing homosexual!"
Then God spoke to my heart, and God said to me, "Troy, do not tell me
what I can and cannot do. I love you. You are my son. I do not have
stepdaughters or stepsons. " (5)
A year later, in 1968, he was with a friend at The Patch, a large gay dance bar
south of Los Angeles. As so often happened in those days, the place was raided, and
his friend, a Mexican- American, was hauled off to jail in handcuffs. A policeman
4 Troy Perry, with Thomas L.P. Swicegood, Don't Be Afraid Anymore,
(New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990), 29
5 Ibid, 30.
called the man apum, a male whore, and threatened to call the man's workplace and
expose him. When Troy got the man out of jail, they talked. His friend was
convinced that he was "just a dirty queer", and that God couldn't possibly care about
him. As Troy prayed, wishing that there was a church somewhere "for all of us who
are outcast", he had a sense that he was called to start such a church. (6)
He talked with friends for two and a half months, then ran an ad in The
Advocate, the Los Angeles gay newspaper, and held the first worship service in his
living room on October 6, 1968. In his sermon that day, Troy laid out his sense of a
three-pronged gospel of salvation, community, and social action — a balanced agenda
which has characterized us at our best ever since. The church grew quickly from the
twelve people present, moving from location to location as the owners discovered
who their tenants were and asked Troy to leave: a women's club, an auditorium, a
movie theatre, finally to an old church on South Union Street which was home to the
congregation until it burned in 1973. Interested people in other cities wrote to Troy
about founding MCCs, and churches began in San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago,
Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.
"...all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that identify the church will be ours"
By 1972, MCC had twenty-four churches and eleven missions and study
groups. While Troy was from a Pentecostal background, he had avoided bringing that
style of worship into MCC, choosing instead a more generic protestant tone. But at
the 1972 general conference of the Fellowship in Los Angeles, Jim Sandmire, a
former Mormon leader, generally intellectual in his preaching tone, preached a
6 Ibid, 32-35.
sermon calling for MCC to give up the idea that it was called to be a refuge until the
mainline churches changed, instead calling MCC "a new expression of the Gospel."
"I believe God would desire that we stop talking about going out of business
and start actually being the new prophetic voice to the world!... A church
like Metropolitan Community Church has never before existed anywhere
on earth... If it is God's will that Metropolitan Community Church shall
continue to grow and go forward, then all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that
identify the church will be ours." (7)
The service continued with ordinations of several clergy, and, after Perry
ordained Sandmire, a man spoke out in tongues, and Perry says he could see a
"grayish blue haze" filling the sanctuary. Almost immediately, another man began to
speak the interpretation. Witnesses (8) who were there say that the man who was
doing the signing for the deaf looked startled, then began signing a message in
English, even before the verbal interpretation came:
"I have called you, my children... I have established you to be my church... If
you will listen to me and follow my precepts, you will continue to grow...
There will be persecutions, there will be heartaches and difficulties, but if in
faith you seek your needs, whatever they be, they will be met... This will
happen as long as you continue to repeat the message that I have given —
God loves you."
Others (including Freda Smith, who was newly licensed as the first woman
minister in MCC, and who came from a Salvation Army background) realized that
they also had the same interpretation. The balance of the service was filled with what
Joseph Gilbert calls "all the showy gifts of the Spirit": Gilbert remembers beginning to
cry when he looked up and saw two friends who had been at loggerheads standing
hand in hand at the communion. "Half the place was weeping," he says. An elderly
7 Ibid, 52-53.
8 Perry's own description of this service comes from Don't Be Afraid
Anymore, 53-60; I spoke with Joseph Gilbert and Bonnie Daniel, who were both
man from the Denver church, long since deaf, heard a high-pitched squeal from his
hearing aid as he went forward for communion. He pulled it out of his ear and
realized, as he burst into tears, that he could hear again. Smith had fallen down a
flight of concrete stairs the night before, severely twisting an ankle, had hobbled into
the service with her ankle swollen and beginning to bruise, wrapped in an Ace
bandage. She was touching Jim Sandmire's hand as the tongues began, an experience
foreign to her Salvation Army background, but found that she was weeping and
shaking with the high emotion of the moment. At the end of the service, when she
got up to walk out of the building, she realized that she was walking without pain.
Taking off the bandage, she saw that the swelling and bruises were gone. "I will know
from this day forward that God has called to us with a power beyond imagination,"
What Gilbert calls the real gifts of the Spirit, "the real Pentecost moments"
were to come in the next year, when MCC survived what we call the "year of refiner's
fire." Three MCC church buildings were destroyed by fire (Los Angeles, San
Francisco, Nashville), and then in June, thirty-two members of the New Orleans
church were killed in a fire set by an arsonist, who threw lighter fluid up the wooden
stairway to a second-floor gay bar, the UpStairs, where they had gathered. Three
congregations left the Fellowship. At the general conference that fall, representatives
of over sixty congregations gathered in Atlanta, and began to hammer out a statement
of faith which could unite people from widely diverse religious backgrounds.
Gilbert's assessment: "The fact that MCC survived as one, through that year, was the
real mark of the gifts of the Spirit."
Threats continued, and so did the Fellowship's clear sense that we were being
led by the Spirit. At the 1974 conference in San Francisco, the Fellowship called for a
commission to set up guidelines for non-sexist worship and an inclusive language
hymnal, and celebrated the establishment of MCCs in England, Nigeria, Australia,
Canada, and Denmark. There was also a moment that Gilbert reports:
Someone rushed in and up to the platform with a note for Troy. There was
word that there was a bomb threat, and not enough time to get us all out.
Troy said, "We will pray together, and if we go, I couldn't go with a better
group of people. " Then there was chaos, and a clatter of chairs as people
stood up, but I was near the back of the meeting, and not a single person
left. A man spoke in tongues, and the interpretation was, "I will raise up a
people." As the time went by, we realized that it was only a threat (9).
The threats and violence have continued. Jeri Ann Harvey remembers being
shot at in her church in Oklahoma City, watching a cross burn on the front lawn of
MCC Houston's front lawn, receiving telephone calls threatening her with rape and
death. A mission pastor's partner was killed in Argentina just after the pastor was on
The sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit has continued, as well. In
building a liberation theology grounded in the Spirit, I believe that I am linking to a
constituitive piece of our own identity as a church led by the Spirit and deeply aware
of that leading.
It is also true to our sense of a call to struggle for justice. Through the years,
MCC members have been at the heart of movements for purple rights: as a major
factor in the passage of the California Gay Rights Bill in 1975; in joining at the
creation of the Gay Rights National Lobby in 1976; in a fight against the "Briggs
Initiative" (to fire gay schoolteachers) in California in 1977, for which Perry
personally raised over $100,000. We were instrumental in organizing the earliest
9 Joseph Gilbert, phone conversation, April, 1992
pastoral responses to the AIDS crisis. We may have been the first denomination to
offer a workshop on childhood sexual abuse at its general conference.
As the membership base spread from United States white gay men to include
women, persons of color, and persons from other countries, so too has our sense of
the span of social justice. Forty-three per cent of our clergy are women. Of our
seven-person Board of Elders, three are women, there is one Hispanic layman, and
two members are from outside of the United States. We have had a Fellowship- wide
policy of inclusive language since 1981, and have just published an inclusive language
hymnal. The Department of People of Color, and its sub-group, White People
Healing Racism, continues to lead us in wrestling with racism. In our 1989 mission
statement, we said that we seek to "confront the injustice of poverty, sexism, racism,
and homophobia through Christian social action".
Liberation as a cutting edge: key issues for today
It is on this cutting edge of liberation, though, that I believe we are called to
grow, continuing on the trajectory of Jim Sandmire's call to be a prophetic church. If
our successes have been in moving "gay Christian" from oxymoron status to reality,
and in forging an ecumenical fellowship among women and men from widely diverse
backgrounds, we have not, it seems to me, been willing to move to a more radical
stance vis a vis traditional Christian theology and practice as we experienced them in
the churches of our birth.
It is as if, "solving" the white gay men's problem of 1968, we "tweaked" the
church-as- we-knew-it slightly, and then went on with business as usual in far too many
arenas. Because of the whiteness of the solution, I will use the word "lavender" in this
next paragraph to indicate the whiteness of our purpleness, and the prefix, "Mc", to
indicate male-centeredness. What did we keep? hierarchy, as McLavender
hierarchy. Conservative readings of scripture, yes, with six careful exegetical
explanations to deal with the patently anti-gay passages, leaving sexism, racism,
militarism, and patriarchy firmly in place. Clericalism, as McLavender clericalism.
Connections with North American consumerism, triumphalism and the success ethos;
as McLavender North American consumerism, triumphalism and success. Racism,
with the sting that we lavender people (white-purple people) claim to speak for and
claim to name the agendas for the brilliant and gifted people of color who are purple,
who have, in many cases, been our teachers and leaders, and who should be so in
many more cases. I think of Sandy Robinson, La Paula Turner, Darlene Garner,
Charlotte Strayhorn, Delores Berry, Carolyn Mobley, and, in her time, Renee McCoy
within the Fellowship; of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lourde, Bell Hooks, and Irene
Monroe, along with other theologians of color who have not named themselves as
purple in the broader church. We have been tempted to be like mainline churches,
only McLavender, and the temptation has overwhelmed us at times. John
Stoltenberg has a stinging paragraph which is worth reproducing:
I do not know of a movement for liberation that has betrayed its
revolutionary potential so soon after its inception as has the male-
dominated movement for the liberation of "gay people." Instead of acting
upon the recognition - available in feminist writings for some time - that the
stigma of being queer originates in the male supremacy of culture, which
stigmatizes all females and all that is "feminine," most gay males have
chosen a completely reactionary strategy: seeking enfranchisement in the
culture as "really virile men," without substantially changing or challenging
their own misogyny and male- supremacist convictions." (10)
Since Stoltenberg wrote that over a dozen years ago, I would add that those
of us who are white middle-class women have also "betrayed... [the] revolutionary
10 John Stoltenberg, "Sadomasochism: Eroticized Violence, Eroticised
Powerlessness," reprinted with changes, from the Gay Community News, February 23,
1980, with permission from the author, in Robin Ruth Linden, Darlene R. Pagano,
Diana E.H. Russell, and Susan Leigh Star, eds., Against Sadomasochism: A Radical
Feminist Analysis, (San Francisco, Frog in the Wall, 1982), 124
potential" with our refusal to see our collusion with the white supremacy of culture,
the North American hegemonic assumptions of culture; and that we join our lavender
brothers in an unwillingness to stand against the dominant culture in those areas
where it is to our advantage that others are oppressed. That was the pain of some of the
early work on this thesis this fall: I realized that signing on for liberation took me into
repentance and metanoia.
Nancy Wilson wrote, in an unpublished reflection in 1989, that if we are like
other churches, only gay, we will be a only a footnote in the history of the church, that
we are called to something far more.
"Our original message still echoes and shocks and births new spiritual life in
many places all over the world, and will continue to do so. But it is tame
and anemic and stale in some places. Where is the new boldness in our
preaching and teaching? What are the theological and pastoral and social
justice frontiers, and who is exploring those frontiers for us? (11)
She then went on to address racism, sexism, clericalism, internationalism, and
classism in order: "If we are not going to remain vastly, overwhelmingly, white with a
couple of dabs of color here and there, we have to repent , and we have to do it now."
"Over and over again, women's issues are trivialized or postponed. And tensions
between men and women get dumped into theological issues, or onto people like
Rev. Frodo Okulum who dares to reach out to lesbians outside of Christianity." "Early
on the Church created a 'class' of clergy and extended privileges. It also exacted a
price for the privileges. All in all, I think it's kind of a mess." "I suspect that some of
us, are silently terrified by the prospect of a UFMCC dominated by non- Westerners...
but we are to embarrassed to even face that fear." Describing us as "marginally
middle class", she looks at our retreat from outreach to the truly marginalized: "Our
11 Nancy Wilson, "Why I Fasted: Losing, Standing, and Gaining Ground
or MCC at 21 Years: Have we Lost Our Way, or Are We Just Finding It Again?
Burning with Millenial Fever!", (unpublished, 1989), 8.
hunger for respectability and safety, our 'don't rock the boat' mentality is directly
proportionate to how threatened we are feeling about our survival and prosperity.
And, I am convinced it will Mil the forward movement of MCC."
What Wilson is getting at is that we must address liberation across a much
broader spectrum. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has paragraphs as stinging as Stoltenberg's
in his call to confession in War Against the Poor:
In order to clarify our ultimate allegiance to Christ and to separate
ourselves from the dominant culture, we must stop living as if these are
normal times. Forty million people dying from hunger-related causes
cannot be regarded as normal. A global economy that worships the idol of
the "free market" and leaves the poor increasingly desperate is
unacceptable. . .
...we need to confess that there is a relationship between our relative
affluence and our willingness to accept imperial myths and to ignore or be
indifferent to U.S. foreign and domestic policies that victimize the poor.
It is this edge to liberation theology which is, I believe, our challenge and our
future — to go back almost to the beginnings of our denomination, and see that our
purpleness was not a challenge to be "almost the same as" other churches, only
purple; but rather a vocational call to learn from the sting of our own oppression, and
move to new community which would resist oppression in all of its forms, including
that which is convenient for us; which will model whole new ways of mutuality and
being-in-community, even being-in-global-community.
Questions for discussion:
1. What is purple about your church? about your church experience?
2. Where are the blessings?
3. What is lavender (or McLavender) about your church? about your
12 Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict
and Christian Faith, (Maryknoll, Orbis, sixth printing 1990), 82-83
THE SPIRIT AMONG US:
CAN WE COME OUT ABOUT THE SACRED IN OUR LIVES?
In this chapter, we continue the preliminaries, still setting the stage for the
work we do together, and look at our experience of the Holy Spirit among us. In
choosing to write a Spirit-centered theology, I believe that this choice of lens
resonates with our conviction within MCC of the presence and empowerment of the
Sacred Spirit among us. It would be difficult to experience services like the 1972
general conference ordination, or to participate in prayer and praise meetings,
without finding that a theology of the Spirit is evoked in us; and this corporate
response is shared with many who celebrate the pentecostal/charismatic renewal as
one of the key events in the church in this century. But my choice of the Spirit as the
entry point also follows from Carter Hey ward's work in Touching Our Strength: The
Erotic as Power and the Love of God, the embodied, celebratory theology of human
sexuality which only a lesbian liberation theologian could write.
In this chapter, I would like to do three things: first, for us to try to find and
name and speak of our experience of the Holy One in our own lives together,
secondly, to flesh out some images of these four strands which we find in the Western
Christian tradition, and finally, to begin to develop my image of Ruach from Biblical
material in the Hebrew Scriptures. This image will be restated in the sermon which is
Chapter 5, and expanded to Christian Scriptures in chapter 8.
"the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell"
Let us begin, as liberation base communities do, by reflecting together on our
experience. In a sermon preached in Oxford, England, over fifty years ago, C.S.
Lewis atempted to reach into his listeners' experience to speak of a deep longing for
God, one of his perennial themes. He acknowledged that it verged on bad manners
to discuss things this deeply personal:
In speaking of this desire... which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a
certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip
open the inconsolable secret in each one of you... the secret also which
pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the
mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at
ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do
Continuing his argument, he said:
Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember
your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for
inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be
found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been
laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has
been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice..." (1)
I believe that this language of Lewis' — together with the shyness which he
felt broaching the question, and the shyness he assumed among his listeners --
describes, better than any other I can create, another "secret we cannot hide and
cannot tell", a secret even more central to our experience than his sense of longing.
It is the experience of God in our own lives that is the deep, driving,
sustaining secret among us. We have learned, somehow, that it is impolite to talk of
it, that it is something tasteless people fake on television, that we will not be taken
1 C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory", in The Weight of Glory, (Grand
Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1965; originally published in England as Transposition
and Other Addresses , 1949), 4-5.
seriously if we speak of those moments when we were nearly breathless at the reality
of the Sacred One in our lives, that our deepest reality may be misinterpreted. But
when we know each other well enough to risk it, when we suspect that we might be
heard, we speak of these times to each other - shyly, with hesitation, sometimes close
to tears. These personal gospels, as I have heard them shared, tend to self-validate in
the tenor of the telling, in the emotional deeps being sounded by the voice, in what
Lewis calls the piercing sweetness, in the wonder which speaks through the speech.
They are as unique as the men and women who tell them, and as the matrix
of relationships in which they were experienced. Some people see, some people hear,
some people know; some are suddenly aware of a healing in their lives, or in the lives
of someone they love; some have a sense of communication and connection with a
loved one across an "impossible" distance; some are pierced with a sense of God's
care and fondness for them; some have near-death experiences; some are
overwhelmed by a sense of the Holy One which they describe as speaking in tongues
or being slain in the Spirit. Phyllis Long speaks of "finding God in here, not out there
like a cosmic travel agent."
The frequency of this sort of experience is one of the great closet secrets of
North American culture . This is not something which happens to rare saints and
certifiable wackos; this is something which has been experienced, in some form or
another, by half of any given congregation, half of any given class of seminarians.
This is our baseline data on God. And we almost never speak of it.
One of the reasons we don't talk about it is that we can't bear to be mis-heard
on anything this important. This knowledge that God has cared, has entered into our
lives, is the most important connection we have. Will you hear, will you honor, my
memory of a time when I was touched at my very core if I tell you? Because when we
stay in the closet on these experiences, we get no confirmation that others are having
them, and we tend to downgrade them in our thinking, to store them in a mental
back-attic, to treat them almost as if they had not happened. Carter Hey ward,
reading this, asked if we sometimes don't recognize the experiences as '"of God', but
rather, simply, transforming, creative, etc.," and it seems to me that when we do this,
we have missed a chance to perceive the Sacred One surrounding and moving in our
But when the least signal is given that the experiences will be heard, the
stories get told. I hear some of these remembered gospel-moments because I am
clergy: a dying French-Canadian woman who had known me for over two months
finally risked telling me of a vision of the Virgin she had had as a child, and her old
tired face almost became radiant as she spoke. A church musician, grieving his
mother, told me that it was ok, he knew that there was life after death, he had been
sitting on a park bench in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, and a beloved friend
who had died of AIDS came and sat down next to him and talked for a while, then
walked off. A worldly gay social worker slips off his tough exterior, and speaks of his
near-death experience after a car crash in Manhattan. A friend, post-Christian,
shares a vision of the Goddess dancing across the mountains. Another friend tells of
searching, in panic, for her small son who had wandered off, and of a moment of light
in a meadow when she knew he was safe. A seminarian, precise and articulate, who
would never admit it near a bishop, speaks of a call from God received while slain in
the Spirit during a prayer service. My grandmother's no-nonsense doctor told my
mother that he had been at too many deathbeds to have any doubt about the afterlife,
or of the ongoing connection with loved ones. A young man speaks of knowing,
without knowing how he knows, the emotional pain and concern of someone near
him. Jose Comblin speaks of Latin American base communities: "The experience of
those who come together to form a community is a charismatic - almost ecstatic one,
though calmly expressed." (2)
What is it that you might tell? In God's Fierce Whimsy, Katie Geneva
Cannon posed the question to her sister theologians:
What I want us to do, as a way to get into this discussion about feminist
theology, is to try to respond to three questions: One, when in my life did I
know there was no God? Two, what resources have helped me find what
God is for me? Three, what images or symbols or rituals help make God
present for me? (3)
I once asked a small group of MCC Philadelphia friends who met each
Wednesday for an agape meal if we could speak, as we felt we wanted to, of a time
when we had known God in our lives. The answers were awesome — literally.
Pause now, for the first discussion question, and share as you are able, and as
you choose. No one should feel pressured.
* * *
We find that we have a dilemma: there is this enormous body of experience
of God, of a deep connection with a presence, a power, a spirit, beyond our rational
framework - and most church communities never give us room to speak of this
knowing. I think that one of the reasons people "don't get much out of church" is
because their own deeply personal religious experiences are not affirmed; and Carter
Hey ward adds, reflecting, that we are not "allowed" to know we have experienced the
Sacred. But I believe that it is critical that we treasure these moments of connection
2 Jose Comblin, The Holy Spirit and Liberation, (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1989,
tr. Paul Burns ), 28.
3 Mud Flower Collective, God's Fierce Whimsy, (New York, Pilgrim,
with the Holy One. We are "born again" (and again and again) when we our
experience of God is our own, not something that is theoretical, not someone else's
understanding of connection. When it first hit me that God really acted in our lives
(ours!, not some saint's), I stood, sweaty, weeping, tangled around my daughter's
bicycle as Kate and I hugged each other, and I thought, "until now I have worshipped
the God of Sister Rachel and Sister Josephine, Father Fairweather and Father
Crummer, and today I know that God first-hand." In a sense, I think that what we
have been sharing in response to the first question, in as many different ways as
persons, was the experience of the Spirit. We have it; it is primary data for our
theological reflection together; it informs our lives and our decisions and our
approach to scripture. In a chapter 9, we will look at the Corinthian church in the
time of Paul, and see the almost unavoidable tension between religious leaders, who
tend to want to keep things cool and orderly, and Spirit-led men and women, who
want to fire things up.
A Second Reformation:
But if we are true to the experiences of many among us, if we have been
touched by God, conscious of God, very often in connection with those we love, and if
we ground our theological reflection in this shared experience, we are talking about a
second Reformation, not only about the first Reformation's notion of the priesthood
of all believers (4), but now about all believers as theologians, about a testing of
4 Luther protested against a medieval Western Christian image of priest
as mediator, "offerer of sacrifice for the people and dispenser of God's grace to
them." [Peter Fink, "Priesthood", in Alan Richardson and John Bowden, eds., The
Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1983), 465.]
Luther (and Protestant reformers) emphasized instead the priesthood of all baptized
persons, the priesthood of all believers. We stand in this tradition in MCC, and this is
most symbolized by our willingness to allow laity to act as principal celebrants at the
religious truths against the data from the lives of the gathered community. Until now,
theology, professional theology, has been the province of "trained experts", generally
male, who stood within and controlled the power structure of ideas and images in the
church as surely as priests/clergy, generally male, stood within and controlled the
power structure of polity and sacraments. But in this new reformation — in the midst
of which I believe we are living - the people of God, the gathered community
reflecting together, can and do act as theologians, as tellers and interpreters of our
sacred stories, as spinners of the great mythic images of our relationships with the
Holy One, with each other, and with the earth. Actually, the people have always been
theologians. What is different with liberation theology is that some of the leadership
in the church is listening to them!
We will realize, first of all, that the experience of God is not limited to
biblical characters and medieval saints. We recognize that our own lives have been
affirmed and fired by moments when we were touched in the ways we described. We
will see that scripture and tradition encapsulate the experiences of others in the faith
community of our heritage, and that not everyone's experience was preserved. We
will recognize metaphors as metaphors, seeing the "yes" and the "no" in each one, as
Sallie Mc Fague reminds us to do. And we will discover that a hierarchical passing-
on of a tradition is not the only way to find a corporate quality for our most sacred
story-telling and myth-spinning. The base community which speaks and holds the life-
stories of the disadvantaged, of the previously silenced, and which lives in
commitment to the poor, the oppressed of our world, brings in its inter-connections a
communal verity and authority which matches that of the tradition, particularly when
the tradition has been the product of privilege. Our lives — and the lives of those with
whom we stand in solidarity - are data for theological reflection, and we will find that
the data is broader and even more suggestive when we learn from those who see from
a different vantage point, particularly those whose vision is not blurred by our
privilege, when we risk sitting in times of sacred listening with them.
Four strands, four descriptions of the Spirit...
When I read or think about the Spirit, I seem to find four strands of the
discussion which weave together: the charismatic strand, which we touched in the last
chapter; what might be called a mystical or ecstatic strand; a gentler sense that the
Spirit is the Sacred One at work in the world; and a sense of the experience of the
Spirit as particularly present in community — particularly when that community seeks
justice and compassion. All four strands represent important truths, I believe; we
miss something if we try to claim exclusivity for any one, or to deny another.
One strand is bright red, the color of fire and flame, and when we examine it,
we find we are talking about the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12, what
Joseph Gilbert calls "the showy gifts," the sort of outpourings of empowerment which
we experienced at the 1972 ordination, gifts which Martin Israel summarizes as "wise
speech, putting the deepest knowledge into words, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous
powers, prophecy, distinguishing true spirits from false, ecstatic utterance of various
kinds ('tongues'), and the ability to interpret it. (5) Modern charismatics and
Pentecostal s treasure these gifts, and see them as marks of the outflowing of the Spirit
in a faith-community. While it is necessary to say that these gifts can be and are
faked, and that a manifestation of one or more of these gifts does not indicate instant
holiness, it is probably more necessary to argue in an academic setting like EDS that
they exist, that healings and wisdom and prophecy are going on all around us today,
that these are gifts for the building up of the community of friends of God, that they
5 Martin Israel, Smouldering Fire: The Work of the Holy Spirit, (New York,
Crossroad, 1981), 70.
tend to build connection . In the healings I have witnessed, the most important thing
has been the healing-as-sign (to use a Johannine concept), the healing-as-sign of the
inbreaking of the realm of God, as sign of the presence and caring love of God, as
sign of the invitation to new and deepened relationship with God and with others.
Martin Israel, a charismatic medical doctor and Anglican priest, comments both on
the idea of connection and on the supra-rationality of these gifts, which he very wisely
does not limit to "Christian" circles:
It seems to me that the basis of these gifts is a liberation of the person from
the oppressive overseership of rational mind so that the psychic faculty can
be opened up and flow out in unrestrained relationship to those in its
vicinity... the mark of this freedom from restraint is an outpouring of
psychic powers and the intensification of deep awareness between people
and eventually between all creatures throughout the universe. (6)
The red strand, then, flashy, flaming, exuberant, sings of the empowering
presence of the Spirit among us, and calls us out past our pseudo-scientific
assumptions that it is at MIT, Cal Tech, and Johns Hopkins that the "real" ex cathedra
truths are proclaimed.
Another strand is golden, sunlight-yellow, like the shimmering light that
filters down between the tall pines in the forest when I walk. This strand can seem
the most private, the most individualistic, but it is rooted in community. This is the
mystical, or ecstatic strand. Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth century mystic, gives us a
flavor of this ecstasy: "Limitless love, from the depths to the stars; flooding all, loving
all. It is the royal kiss of peace." (7) Andrew Greeley, after throwing an almost
casual question into a National Opinion Research Poll, was catapulted into research
on the mystical, when over half the respondents described mystical experiences. In a
6 Ibid., 70-71.
7 Hildegard of Bingen, quoted in Gabriele Uhlein, Meditations with
Hildegard of Bingen, (Santa Fe, Bear and Company, 1983), 52.
later sample of 1467 persons, 59% reported a sense of pre-experience of a place; 58%
reported a sense of contact with someone far away; 24% reported having seen events
that happened at a great distance as if they were happening; 27% reported feeling as
if they were really in touch with someone who had died; 35% reported feeling as if
they were very, very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift them out of
themselves (8). Greeley's conclusions, after a study in which he excluded what he
classified as pentecostal manifestations: that William James' categories of religious
experience are still useful, that there are millions in our society who have mystical
experiences with some frequency, that mysticism is a form of knowing, a creative
drive, as well as a moment of joy, and a challenge to our materialism. Speaking of
Christian mystics, he noted "mystical activism," arguing that mystics like Augustine,
Bernard, Teilhard du Chardin, Richard Rolle, and John Buchan (I would add
Hildegard of Bingen, Theresa of Avila) did not abandon the world, but were actively
engaged in connections with other people and events. For all that Greeley has a
stated goal of being "hard-nosed" in his analysis, he cannot escape a sense that, as a
Christian, he will describe the Holy Spirit as implicit in this:
The Spirit of God is out there, whirling and swirling, wheeling and dealing,
and he is also inside of us, enveloping us with fire and warmth and what
Richard Rolle called "great and unexpected comfort."
The fire is there if we but give it spark. (9)
A third strand is deceptively blue, like the blue of the sky, or the turquoise of
shallow waters in the Caribbean — deceptively blue, because while we are immersed
in the air or the water we do not see it. When we talk about the Spirit working in and
through all creation and all time as we know them, we are in a place where the
8 Andrew M. Greeley, Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing, (Englewood Cliffs,
Prentice Hall, 1974), 139-142.
9 Ibid., 138.
presence and action of the Spirit so surrounds us that we can miss it. To sense God
enfolding, in-folding creation, present in creation and holding creation present in
God's own self, is not pantheism (which mistakenly identifies God with creation), but
pan-en-theism, as I hear Norman Pittenger and Virginia Mollenkott using the word.
Nor need we fear to acknowledge God's presence within ourselves, in one
sense communicating with us in the depth of our spirit, and in another sense
fully identified with us. God is both "other" and ourselves, more fully
ourselves than our superficial body-identified personalities could ever be,
and yet beyond us, more all-encompasing than we could imagine Her to be,
more mysterious than any of His names! (10)
In the next line, Mollenkott takes us into process theology, beginning with
"To recognize that God is becoming God's self through the process of my living..."
We grew up in a three-storey house left over from Western European
medieval thought: God and heaven somehow "up" there, us on earth in the middle,
hell and murkiness somehow down underneath. Our language reflects this over and
over, and I realize as I write it how much the structure represents and supports
hierarchy as normative and immovable. Status was seen as critical. Think of the
medieval theologians' need to name the moment of consecration at the eucharist, and
to construct a philosophical-scientific description of exactly how the elements bore
the mystery of connection to the risen Christ. Even the anguish of the Reformation
theologians over predestination was a continuation of an essentially static, three-
storey worldview, a universe in which a coldly just and consistent God is distant from
the process of our daily lives: the impassible God.
10 Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Godding, (New York, Crossroad, 1987), 4,
italics in the original.
As opposed to this static reality, process theology, and I read it through
Pittenger as he follows Alfred North Whitehead, sees reality as process . God is fully
engaged in the process, with us and with creation, present in and with the process as
well as being the One toward whom the process moves. Pittenger has a wonderful
image for this, the Spirit as "lure" in the process, drawing us toward the fulfillment of
our ontology, pulling us - and all creation — the process. Describing the Spirit as
"supremely dynamic", he says, "...part of the action of the Spirit in the world is the
bringing of people into conformity with the intended pattern of goodness and
righteousness... where justice and peace, truth and understanding, human fellowship
and cooperation are achieved, anywhere, anytime, by any group or individual, there
the Holy Spirit is operative." (11) John Taylor writes of the Spirit as "working
anomymously and in the inside: the beyond in the midst" of things. (12) This notion,
this deceptively blue strand, is, I think, very important in that it honors the real
dunamis, the real power of the Holy Spirit, who is moving in all of creation as we
know it, not just doing a few "party tricks"; it also prepares us as white, North
American Christians, to become members of a global community. We do not "take
God" to the "third world." Rather, we begin to learn to see that the Sacred Spirit has
been present in power, is present in power, and will continue to be present in power,
in traditions which we do not know, among peoples very different from ourselves,
with whom we need to sit as learners, not authorities.
The fourth strand of our discussion is, I imagine, interwrapped red, for
passion and com-passion, and green, for our earthiness and creatureliness and
11 Norman Pittenger, The Holy Spirit, (Philadelphia, Pilgrim Press, 1974),
12 John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the
Christian Mission, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1972), 5.
connection with earth and with all peoples who bring green and red into their flags. It
connects to the sense that we encounter the Spirit when we are together with, and for,
each other in community, especially as that community expands and breaks past its
boundaries over and over. It can be as simple as the experience, in a prayer group,
that the Spirit seems to lead us to common themes and understandings. It can be as
exhilirating as the "vibes" in the crowd at the end of a march for justice. The
experience of the Spirit at Pentecost was intensely communal, emerging among
community and leading to bold proclamation of invitation into community. Greeley's
sense of ecstasy in love-making, which I held from discussing until now, is the Spirit
experienced in community. Taylor speaks of "the invisible third party who stands
between me and the other, making us mutually aware... the giver of that vision
without which the people perish." (13)
Carter Heyward, in a 1989 unpublished sermon, begins with Augustine's
classic description of the Spirit in De Trinkate, as the bond of love between the
Father and the Son, and then renders this inclusive and extends it to suggest that the
Spirit is the bond of connection between not only the Creator and the Christ, but
between God and creation, between God and all creatures, between us when we are
in right relation; indeed that all of our mutual connection in compassion and justice is
born of and sustained by the Spirit. This ends us up at the point of the Taize hymn,
Ubi Caritas: where charity and love are found, God is there.
Oscar Romero wrote that "the strivings of individuals and groups [in behalf
of freedom], even if they do not profess to be Christian, derive their impetus from the
13 Ibid, 19.
Spirit of Jesus." (14) This last strand, red and green together, seems to me to be
linked with each of the other strands: it is in community that we know the gifts of the
Spirit among us, it is in the context of community that we experience ecstasy, it is as
earth -creatures attuned to our embodiedness and connections with all of creation that
we experience the Spirit wheeling through creation. And it is worth underlining,
before we leave this discussion of these strands of experience of the Spirit, that the
Spirit who is Connection calls us to live in connection; that the Spirit who breaks all
boundaries calls us to give them up; that whatever our sense of the Spirit's gifts, or
mystical touch, or power in creation, or power in connection — this is given to be used
in connection and community , not to be hoarded or banked, or capitalized as an asset
for our personal future.
Ruach: brooding at creation, filling judges and prophets
Within the Hebrew scriptures, the word for Spirit (or spirit) is ruach, the
strong Spirit of God, the "wind from God" that swept over the face of the waters in
the beginning of creation, according to the priestly account in Genesis 1:2.
Baumgartel suggests that this account emphasizes the Spirit as a "dynamic creative
principle", not just in creation of the cosmos, but that "Everything living, all physical
life, derives from this dynamism." (15) God creates, and sustains with the Spirit. The
sense of the breath/Spirit of YHWH as life-giving in a physical as well as spiritual
sense drives the dramatic vision of the valley of dry bones coming to life in Ezekiel
37: the Ruach takes him to the valley, charges him to prophesy to the ruach (as
14 Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless, (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1985), p. 105,
quoted in Jon Sobrino, Spirituality of Liberation: Toward Political Holiness,
(Maryknoll, Orbis, 1989), tr. Robert R. Barr, 76.
15 Baumgartel, as one of the five contributors to the article on pneuma, in
Gerhard Friedrich, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume VI,
English version [hereinafter abbreviated as TDNT] (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1968)
tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, particularly 362-368.
wind/breath), and promises to "bring you up from the graves, O my people. I will put
my Ruach within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil..." (Ez.
37: 13-14). There is also a wild apocalyptic image of Ruach in Ezekiel: it is interesting
to reread Ezekiel 1, the vision of the living creatures and wheels preceeding Ezekiel's
call and receipt of Ruach, and notice how the ruach of the vision moves between the
living creatures and the wheels, spinning and careening. Ruach is gramatically
gender-feminine, which allows me, as a woman, to place a female gender cast to
Ruach as I think of her.
Within the Pentateuch, Ruach is identified with three leaders. It is because
of Ruach that Joseph's can interpret Pharaoh's dream (Gen. 41:38). Moses, who is
described as the prototypical prophet (Deut. 34:10), is imaged as filled with Ruach; so
much so that there is Ruach to spare for the seventy elders unto whom it is poured in
Numbers 11. It fills two men who missed the meeting, Eldad and Medad, and they
prophesy as well. As it is time for Joshua to lead the Israelites across the Jordan,
Ruach fills him as well (Deut. 34:9). Ruach is understood as active in history,
teaching justice to leaders. After David, when he is imaged as the prototype of the
just ruler, the expectation is that God will send a king from the line, who will bring
justice for the poor and oppressed, and be filled with Ruach.
Later, it will be understood that God's Ruach will continue to direct and lead
Israel: "My Ruach abides among you; do not fear" in Haggai 2:5. Zerubbabel will
succeed in leading back the first band of exiles "Not by might, nor by power, but by
my Ruach, says YHWH of hosts." (Zech. 4:6)
It is Ruach who fills the prophets, enabling ecstatic utterances and prophetic
acts: Balaam's risky but true oracle (Num. 24:1-9) was given after Ruach came on
him. Possessed by Ruach, Saul prophesied with the prophets after his anointing by
Samuel, (1 Sam. 10:10). In the power of Ruach, Elijah is credited with the ability to
be carried about, and that ruach is given to Elisha in a double portion (2 K. 2:9,15).
Micah is explicit about his call in the power of Ruach, and about the
connection between Ruach and justice:
But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the spirit of YHWH
and with justice and might
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
and to Israel his sin. (NRSV, Micah 2:8)
What the people, represented by Jacob and Israel, are to hear in this
declaration is that they abhor justice, build Zion with blood, give judgement for a
bribe, and oracles for money. Micah is outraged at the willingness of the power elite
to oppress "my people", to live so fully off the marginalized that it can be said that
they "eat the flesh of my people. "
In an eschatological vision bordering on apocalyptic, Joel imagines a day
when God will "pour out my Ruach on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall
prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my Ruach." (NRSV,
Joel 2:28-29). This is, I believe, the most general image of the outpouring of the
Spirit in Hebrew scripture; the next largest group to experience the Spirit were the
seventy elders of the Numbers account, although in that account, Moses is portrayed
as saying, "Would that all of YHWH's people were prophets, and that YHWH would
put Ruach on them!" (11:29).
But it is in the images of Ruach in Isaian material that I find the greatest
richness. The Spirit of God anoints the one who will bring justice. This connection
ties to the messianic and Zion traditions: In Isaiah 11:1-9, for instance, the idealized
king will have Ruach YHWH resting on him, (as in 2 Sam. 23:2) and will do justice,
rule justly, decide with equity for the meek, rule in the fear of God. In Isaiah 28:6,
YHWH will bring a ruach of justice to the one who sits in judgement; in Isaiah 32:15-
17, when a ruach from on high is poured out, then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in a fruitful field.
In the second Isaiah image of the servant in 42, ruach and justice connect
again; God has put God's Ruach on the servant, who will bring forth justice to the
nations, gently yet with perseverance, establishing justice on the earth. In 44:3, in an
image not unlike Joel's, there is an image of God pouring water on the thirsty land,
and Ruach on all the descendants of Jacob.
In the third block of Isaiah, emerging from the prophetic school after the
restoration, that the clearest ties are made between Ruach YHWH and justice. In
Isaiah 61, we see Ruach YHWH being on the one sent to bring good news of
liberation from the daily oppression that was common:
Ruach YHWH is upon me,
because YHWH has anointed me;
and has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of YHWH's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn. (NRSV, Is. 61:1-2, rendered inclusive)
Since Christian writers of New Testament materials referred back to Isaiah
as a touchstone for their understanding of the life, ministry, and suffering of Jesus,
this image of the Spirit is carried into Luke. In the sermon which is chapter 5, I will
read backwards to this text from Luke's account of Jesus' first sermon at Nazareth,
(Luke 4:16-19) in which he is representing as unrolling the scroll and reading from
Isaiah. The text which Luke "quotes" is actually a merged text of Isaiah 58 and 61.
Sharon Ringe, in Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee, connects the
notion of the Sabbath and Jubilee traditions of Exodus (21:2-6, 23:10-11) and
Deuteronomy (15:1-18) with Isaiah 61 and the Lukan passage. Ringe sees the
tradition as describing present-possible justice:
In these traditions liberty is presented in economic, social and political
terms: freedom for slaves, release for captive peoples, cancellation of debts,
redistribution of land, care for the poor, food for the hungry, and healing of
physical ailments. The language is primarily the language of ethics, dealing
with valules, social relationships, and the establishment or restoration of
Walter Brueggemann sees III Isaiah as "a radical vision of this world
differently organized," giving "the community freedom, energy, and courage to
envision the world alternatively arranged." He sees Isaiah 56:3-8, 58:6-7, and 61:1-4
as examples of "released social imagination" which pushes "back the frontiers."
Specifically, he claims that this social imagination is "this-worldly, earthly, and political"
(italics his), and that it corresponds to the social criticism of I Isaiah. (16)
What we have in this entire block of material from the Hebrew Scriptures is
a sense of the Spirit, of Ruach as powerful in creation, active in history, poured our on
and filling people for action and prophecy, working for liberation. Within the later
development of III Isaiah, we have a sense that justice will be done in the power of
Linking the three parts of this chapter, we can think of Ruach in all the ways
we have encountered her, or heard of others realizing her in their lives. We can
realize that a minimal description of Ruach will include the red strand of the
16 Sharon Ringe, Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for
Ethics and Christology, (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1985), xiv.
16 Walter Brueggemann, "Unity and Dynamic in the Isaiah Tradition", in
Journal of Studies in the Old Testament, 29, 1984, 89-107.
exuberant giftedness, the yellow strand of ecstasy and mysticism, the apparently blue
strand of her work and presence in creation, and the red and green strand of passion
and corn-passion in and for community. We can remember images of her from the
Hebrew scriptures, moving with power in creation and in the ongoing creation of
justice within history. Some themes overlap in the different parts: the ecstasy which
some may have experienced turned up in Greeley and the yellow strand, and in the
ecstasy of Saul dancing with the prophets. Community is consistent thoughout. And
so, too, I believe, is liberation.
Questions for discussion: (Question 1 was poised midpoint in the text)
1. Can you remember an experience of the holy, of God? What was it
like for you?
2. If you were to pick an image for the Spirit, what would it be?
3. You are Micah, or III Isaiah, two weeks after landing in today's
Boston or New York City. What would you say? (Do you want to
do a role play?)
FEMINIST LIBERATION THEOLOGY 101:
BLOWING THE TRUMPETS AROUND JERICHO
In this chapter, we complete the preliminaries, looking at liberation theology,
what it offers to MCC, and how it challenges us. The general outline for this chapter
is from a preliminary design for a workshop on feminist liberation theology which I
will give in June, 1992, at the Mid-Atlantic District Conference. It has been tested
once in the thesis reflection group of MCC in the Mountains, and some of comments
from the group are woven into this chapter. As was stated in the introduction, the
workshop comes in response to questions about feminism after our 1991 General
Conference. In writing this version of the workshop outline, I decided to recruit some
small-group facilitators and have a pre-session with them. I came into MCC in MCC
Philadelphia, so the Mid-Atlantic District and its people are well-known to me. For
thesis readers, the most significant change in pace is that the discussion questions are
moved into the text, where they will appear in the workshop.
"What did you learn in seminary, Fairbairn?
[introductory comments specific to the group, warm-up, then:]
Now when I was a little girl, often my Dad would ask at dinner, "so what did
you learn in school today?" and it feels as if this is the final exam for seminary, with
Adam DeBaugh asking, "so what did you learn in Cambridge, Fairbairn?"
What I learned in seminary was feminist liberation theology, reading, and
listening to, and working with some of the key women in the field. I am personally
convinced that it's "good stuff, and good for us. I think that liberation theology offers
us a way to claim our own liberation, and to stand with others in claiming theirs.
Then the descriptive adjective (like "feminist", in feminist liberation
theology), really refers to the community from which it emerges. But good lesbian
and gay liberation theology should be feminist, and good feminist liberation theology
should lead people to stand in solidarity with our community.
What I'd like us to do this afternoon is to "test drive" liberation theology; I'll
talk about it a bit as we begin the various sections, but mostly, I'm going to be talking
about methodology — how you "do" it — where you will find the seat belts and
gearshift while you do your test drive. You will be breaking up into small groups —
staying in the same small group throughout the workshop. This — the small group - is
part of the methodology.
Liberation theology comes to us from Latin America, where it developed
among small communities of the poor, "base communities", usually among Roman
Catholics, with root beginnings in the fifties and sixties. (1) These base communities
are small groups of Christians, who meet regularly for times of prayer, worship, and
communal reflection on the experiences of their lives. They are usually led by a
layperson. I imagine them to be about the size of most of our "small" MCC's. "They
also stress sharing, communication, mutual assistance, and friendship." (2)
1 This introduction borrows heavily from the introduction to Alfred T.
Hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1990),
2 Henelly, xviii
Now this communal reflection — this thinking together — about the
experiences of their lives is not just "so how was the coffee-picking today, Jose?"
Following the educational theories of Paolo Friere, the Brazilian educator, they study
the Bible and do their reflection using a method called conscientization. This word —
hard to translate — is a little bit like consciousness-raising. It includes becoming
aware of what is going on by means of analysis of experience, and then making a
commitment to work for change. Friere was very concerned to help the peasants not
only to learn to read, but also to "become aware of their own dignity and rights" while
they were becoming literate. He also wanted to enable them to move out of their
position at the bottom of the social and cultural heap by helping them identify the
real causes of their oppression. This idea of Friere' s has gotten him exiled from a
number of Latin American countries.
So you're going to form mini-base communities this afternoon, groups of four
or five, and you will be doing conscientization - looking at your experience, and
reflecting on it together — and deciding about change.
Exercise 1: Social Location
For the first exercise, I need three volunteers....
[Scene setting: a table, or, as we did it at MCC in the Mountains, a large
comfortable armchair. One volunteer is asked to sit comfortably on top of the
table; one volunteer is asked to kneel so that they are at eye-level with the table-
top. One volunteer is asked to lie down underneath the table. The workshop
folks see this get set up. Once everyone is in position, I put a bowl of flowers on
top of the table.]
[At MCC in the Mountains, we had Jack Dryak, a veterinarian, sitting
comfortably in the chair; Jim Biernat, a social worker, kneeling and squinting across the
top of the chair arm, and Phyllis Long, a nurse-midwife, on her stomach with her head
and upper body under the chair. 1 put a small wooden bird on the chair arm.]
Now, then, I'm going to ask each of you three to think about the answer to a
question, and then, when you've got it, to be ready to share it with us all. I wonder,
how would you describe the workshop, and how would you describe the table?.
[The answers in Vermont were splendid: Phyllis: "Well, it's kind of close and
dark down here, and I can see two legs, and that 's about it. "' Jim: "Well, I can look out,
and see the wall across the way, and a bird, but it's light and airy here. " Jack: "Well, this
is very pleasant, and I can look around, and Fairbairn put a wooden carving of a bird on
the arm of the chair, and ...mmmm, I can see each of you, except for Phyllis. "J
[Offhandedly] ...Now then, before we break up into small groups and start
working, I wonder if any of you would have any problem if you just stayed where you
are for the workshop?....
[Again, the Vermont answers were dandy: Jack, oozing generosity, "Well, I'm
really very comfortable here, but I feel a little awkward with them so obviously
uncomfortable, so I think it would be better if they could go sit down. " Jim: "Yes, I don't
think it would be very pleasant to stay here for the next hour. " Phyllis: "Yes, I don 't like it
down here. " So Jim and Phyllis moved, but Jack stayed where he was. J
Ok, thank you very much. Did you notice that each of the three saw the
table, and the workshop, and the world in general, very differently, depending on
where they were? One of the first things we try to get at in liberation theology is that
our location matters . From where he was sitting, Jack couldn't even see what it was
like under the chair - and he only knew because he could hear Phyl's voice. This is
what we call social location. Social location is where we are in society. And our
social location impacts what we see, what we hear, what we believe . When folks are
running around the outside of Jericho, blowing trumpets, our assessment of the
situation depends on where we see ourselves as sitting: out with the troops blowing
trumpets, or in the walled city, or in great comfort in the walled city.
So now, for the first exercise, we're going to go into our small groups for
about ten minutes, and talk about our social location with each other, and how it
impacts on us. For instance, I am a white middle-class North American, well-
educated, well-fed lesbian. I periodically experience some societal oppression as a
woman and as a lesbian, but I can pass if I choose to. In general, as a white, and as a
middle-class person, and as a North American, I am sitting on top of the table, and in
general, I don't really notice the folks under it. In Philadelphia, for instance, I used to
drive home from church on the freeway, so I didn't see what it was like in North
1 (A): Review and feedback:
[Again, the Vermont responses were marvelous. Phyllis talked about how her
time working as a nurse in Harlem helped her see oppression, and also about her
experience in Africa. Liz Ruga said "You know, if Phyl had stayed under the chair
through the workshop, her perception would have been different throughout. " Thorn
Rock and Jim Biernat told us about having their house shot at, and about going into an
unemployment hearing after being fired by a Bible-toting restaurant owner who learned
they were gay. Only as we worked with them did they get the fact that the "three New
Hampshire men" on the panel may have been more ready to hear their story as
supporting other men against an uppity woman restaurant owner. "Did you tell them you
were gay?" I asked. "Oh, no, " said Jim, "our lawyer said to keep that out of the hearing. "
"How do you think it might have turned out if they had known you were gay? or if you
had been black? or a woman?" Jim paused, and then said "ooooooo. We never thought
of that. "J
1 (B): Review and analysis:
OK - so one perspective of liberation theology — is that where we are makes
a difference in how we see things, how we experience them. Our social location
matters. It conditions what we see. And social location includes economic, class, job-
status, and national citizenship. Our gender matters, in a society which privileges
men. Our race matters, in a society which privileges white people. Our social class
And liberation theology, coming from underneath, from the villages of the
poor in Latin America, also links to the Gospel, and to the beatitudes, and to Jesus'
call for justice, and to Matthew 25 (if you did it for the least of these my sisters and
brothers, you did it for me). So liberation theology will always speak about a
"preferential option for the poor", which means that those who are least heard, who
are most marginalized, need to be heard.
Our social location matters,
OURS is fairly comfortable,
and we need to realize that MOST of the WORLD lives under the table.
Exercise 2: Power
We can get this analysis intuitively, when we realize that we know more
about heterosexual culture than straight folks know about lesbian and gay culture. In
your small groups, if you ask the question, you will find that women know more about
male culture than men know about like women's culture. Just like we live in straight
culture, we live in male culture! And our African-American sisters and brothers, for
instance, will assure you that they know more about white culture than we know
about black culture.
This is hard, but we need to understand, those of us who are white middle-
class folks, that there are people under our tables, and that they don't want to be
there , and that, more or less, we are on top of the tables.
Just to get a sense of the magnitude of the people we don't see, try a useful
number to learn like forty million. According to Jack Nelson -Pall meyer, forty million
people are dying of starvation, or starvation-related deaths every year, mostly women
and children. That's more than forty-five hundred an hour. That's six thousand, seven
hundred and fifty people — who will die of starvation — while we have this workshop.
Carter Hey ward just came back from a trip to Brazil and told me that the police
"solve" the problem of the sickly child beggars on the streets by shooting them at
night. And in our power, we don't "see" it.
Why don't we "get" this? Why don't we see it? Why aren't we consumed with
compassion and horror? One of the reasons we don't get it is because our society has
taught us that it's our place to be on top. Those people under the table could be on
top if they would just work hard. Right?
It's also because we want to stay on top. Those of us who are on top of the
table, tend to assume that the view from the top of the table is the only view, that
what we see is the "correct" view of reality. We have the power to name reality, and,
often, to convince others that our description of reality is true.
Now I think that it has been a gift and a grace for me to be lesbian in this
society, because I have a little sense of what it is to be under the table — or outside
the city walls of Jericho.
Now suppose that the person on top of the table had been able to decide
whether or not anyone moved. Suppose the person on top of the table had known
that they would have to sit on the floor if anyone moved . And notice — this does not,
at first, convey any moral turpitude. The structure and system, as I set it up, put A —
on top, and B — in the middle, and C — under the table.
When we go back into our small groups, we're going to talk about power:
who has it, and who doesn't; what power we have and what power we don't have.
There has been lots of mystification about power in our society: either we are led to
believe that nobody has any — "we're all equal here", or that someone else has it all,
and that nothing we can do will make any difference.
We'll begin to enforce a ground rule in the small groups that we have to talk
from our own experience . And try to give everyone an equal voice; try to listen to
So go to your groups now, for about 10-15 minutes or so: who has power, who
doesn't? What power do you have? Who has power in your MCC? — to decide
what? - to decide that the group will do what?
[after the groups start, at about 7 minutes, offhandedly, again...] Hey folks, I
wonder if you have noticed anything about who has been talking, and who hasn't, and
what that might be about? Talk, before you wrap up this part, about whether you
notice any difference between men and women? about race?
2 (A): Review and feedback:
Did any group find something surprising about power? Can you give me a
one-liner? [write on pad] Did any group notice anything about who gets to make
the decisions? Did any group find anything about gender differences, or racial
differences? [write on pad] In FLT 102, we look at class differences, but these are
In Vemont, the feedback was marvelous, and I only report the group's
discussion, which was mostly the men (although I didn 't look for that in the trial run).
Phyllis and Jim thought that their experience of power was fluid. Jack plunged off to a
start, "Well, someone has to be in charge, to take care of the others... it seems to me as if
you're trying to do without hierarchy, but what would we have without hierarchy?" Liz
jumped in, rather crustily, "Well maybe something better! " Then Thorn talked about an
incident at his school that week, when the Head Teachers imposed some stuff and left
him feeling marginalized. He brought up the difference between Jacob 's ladder and
Sarah's circle: "On Jacob's ladder, I'm stepping on someone's hands, and my hands keep
being stepped on. If we stand in a circle, we hold everyone 's hands, and look into
everyone 's eyes. " Phyllis made the point that this echoed the notion of different styles of
organization as represented in The Chalice and the Blade. Jack got excited about the
notion that in the circle, people were dancing, and Thorn noticed that the circle got bigger
and bigger without having a problem; Liz added that on the ladder, there was only room
for one person per rung.
2 (B): Review and analysis:
Just as we need to look at social location, we need to do what gets called a
power analysis. Who has power? Who doesn't? And this key question: in any action,
whose power is served? Not surprisingly, in most instances in our society, those in
power make decisions which serve their power. But we do a power analysis to help
us notice that. If the person on top of the table had had the power to decide whether
people stayed in their places ("law and order") — or maybe would have to go sit on
the floor if he gave up the table top, how do you think he would have decided?
So we do a power analysis. And we discover, when we do a power analysis,
that different people in the society sit in very different places, hold very different
amounts of power, are permitted more or less choices. [Display Elisabeth Schussler
Fiorenza's pyramid] At the top of the pyramid is the upper-middle to upper class
white, heterosexual North Atlantic male. Now if these people hold power, we
shouldn't be surprised that they don't have a high stake in helping end racism, or in
gay rights, or in feminism, or in genuine justice for the poor of the world.
Given the pyramid, we have a sudden insight about racism, sexism,
heterosexism, classism, North Atlantic imperialism, ageism, militarism, and the
international business maneuvers which impoverish our brothers and sisters and our
planet: they are all connected . This is what feminists define as patriarchy. It
permeates our society, our lives, our minds. Just as you and I struggle against the
internalized homophobia which we learned; so now we all — women too, need to
struggle against the internalized patriarchy which we learned. And, brothers, when
we suspect that sexism and heterosexism are connected, we are really saying that gay
and bisexual men will not be accorded full human status until women are. Your chief
sin is not being "macho" enough. The same thing is true of racism. As long as racism
endures, and sets up a hierarchy of value in the society, we will all suffer under the
tables in that hierarchy.
So an awareness of social location, and a power analysis are tools. So is the
notion of working in base communities, and speaking from our own experience. Now
WHEN those of us who are marginalized in one way or another speak from our own
experience, what do we learn? Amazing things! When women started looking at the
economic issues, we discovered that the average woman makes less than 59% of what
the average man makes. When we looked at jobs which take approximately equal
training, we were stunned at the wage difference. Since men are dominant in this
society, men get paid more - on the whole - for what they do.
Exercise 3: Images and language serve those in power
The very nature of our language and images — which are embedded in our
society (and our church) and which also shape our society and church — is that the
power of language and images serves the power of the dominant groups, including
men. From the perspective of our community, the language also serves the
heterosexual majority. For instance, can you imagine Newsweek wringing its hands
and wondering whether heterosexuality was born or bred? or whether it was curable?
If we start doing a power analysis, we can catch this nonsense.
The Bible — this is painful - was written by and for a male society. The
stories, the assumptions, and the interest, are men's. Occasionally a woman turns up;
when a man needs a mother or a wife or some water. And part of what we do in
feminist Biblical studies is to reconstruct the other half of the story — the part that
doesn't get told, the part that gets marginalized. We have to find ourselves in the
Now — remember — the dominant group gets to make up the words, and
decide what they mean, and teach them to everyone else... and the dominant group
gets to decide that its view of the world is the "true" view — often called, in the
universities, "objective truth". So we have academic course listings in which we have -
- are you ready? — "English literature", and then "Black literature", and "women's
literature." "English literature" is primarily white, male, North Atlantic-centered
literature. Isn't that interesting?
We also have "men", or "mankind" -- which we're supposed to believe means
all people, and we're supposed to think that that's neutral, but just try. suggesting that
for a month, the word "women" will generically be used for "all people." We're
starting to get at the language issue, with inclusive language — and we open up a
richness of phrasing and images when we do this.
But let's look at the God-images. We begin with the general notion that all
language about God is metaphoric in quality. We speak in metaphors or similes
because we don't have anything else. So, in a simile, "God is like a shepherd, going
after the lost sheep," and in the image which follows immediately, "God is like a
woman scurrying around the house to get a lost coin." Two images. But we have
hymns about God who shepherds us, and we don't have any hymns about God
sweeping up the house to find us. Male images of God, and images which connote a
way of being which society defines as male, are privileged . How privileged? They
have been, until recently, almost normative in the Christian churches.
If I start regularly writing prayers to God imaged as Goddess, I can expect a
tense review with the DCRC. "Bad image," they might say. "Leads to terrible
religion." But we image God in our scriptures as a ruthless desert warrior, who wants
the absolute destruction of cities, who wants the hazing of Isaac and the death of
Jepthah's daughter — and no one has any problem with that image. Even though an
image of God-as-holy-warrior can lead to a global conflagration.
Because there's one more thing about metaphors which we need to watch out
for — and this is a reason that feminists, and liberation theologians in general, are
working with them: we are tempted to run our God-metaphors two ways. When we
say, "God the Father," we imply that there is something in fathers which relates to
something we understand about God, so that there is something father-like about
God. But we we also imply that there is something God-like about fathers. We can
imply that there is something kingly about God, or something God-ly about kings.
We can imply that God is fierce in love for God's people — even like a warrior... or
we can imply that there is something God-ly about dropping napalm on the
Vietnamese villages. That's the risk in metaphors - and that's why, I think, the male
metaphors are privileged. They maintain the power of those who have it.
Since all language about God is metaphorical, and every metaphor carries
some truth and some untruth, the best we can do, I think, is to multiply and enhance
our metaphorical base.
We also need to recognize that some are particularly problematic for women
- especially for all of us who were battered over the ordination question in our
previous churches, battered by those who used the Bible to enforce our second-class
status. First, while the simile, "God is like a loving father" may work for some
people, we need to understand that it doesn't work for many women who were
sexually abused as children, or for men who were abused by their fathers. Secondly,
we need — all of us - to be very suspicious of the split in the Western church between
"body" and "spirit", between "physical/ sensual" and "spiritual, between "earthiness"
and "highmindedness", which somehow ended up portraying women (and gay men) as
earthy, physical, sensual, emotional, erotic, tempting; and straight men as intellectual,
spiritual, reasonable, objective, and tempted. God, since male-based images are
privileged, ended up in the same camp with the (heterosexual) men.
So now get back together in your small groups for a bit - say fifteen minutes.
Go get a soda if you want. And talk together about this. Think of your favorite
images or God-language, and then ask where you got them — whose power is served
by these images; which of them are privileged because of male power? You might
try to construct some other images, which celebrate power for non-males, for non-
whites. And if you run out of things to discuss, try this one: you're on a search
committee, and a a pastor (female or male) says that their personal favorite image of
God - the one they keep coming back to in their private prayers - is an image of a
great brooding hen gathering chicks under her wings — or of a fierce, earthy, zesty,
big-breasted, wise mother? Would you hire that pastor? Why or why not?
3 (A): Feedback and review:
In Vermont, Phyllis gave me the hen image as her favorite. Sam talked about
the dualism of Man and Superman 's heaven (all intellect) and hell (all flesh). We didn't
approach this image question directly; this section is a rewrite of my Vermont
What did you come up with in your groups? And would you hire the pastor?
3 (B): Feedback and analysis:
This is our third tool, along with an analysis of social location, and a power
analysis. We become suspicious of cultural norms, images, and language ~ like our
scripture and our language for God, which we find bear male bias. They also carry
racist bias. The Hymnal Project has been fairly intentional about replacing the
darkness-equals-sin imagery, and that was important to do. We see that we have
internalized the assumptions of patriarchy, and that we need to be undermining
patriarchy, working toward a new world.
4. Where's the authority?
Now this may sound like a revolution. It is. The combination of feminism
and liberation (with liberation theology's solidarity with the poor, with oppressed
racial and ethnic groups) is revolution-making. The most common liberation re-
reading of the synoptic gospels emphasizes Jesus as a prophet, as a radical, as
preaching a radical new ethic of community and solidarity with the poor, declaring
that the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, which I usually call "the commonwealth
of God," and which is marked by companionship, not hierarchy. Matthew 25 then, ("if
you did it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it unto me"), together
with Jesus' regular habit of hanging around with the marginalized: with women,
children, peasants, tax collectors, the sick, the crazy, the publicly-declared sinners —
signals a new radical era.
If feminists are going to be suspicious of hierarchy, suspicious of the
androcentric bias of scripture and past theological language, are going to experiment
with other metaphors and images, are going to creatively reconstruct our sacred
history — and I think we should, just as I think that the purple community should be
on the same project ~ then where is the new authority? The foundations of Jericho
are rocking. Where do we stand?
I think there are two answers to this: (A) there isn't AN authority, and there
isn't A SINGLE objective truth, just as there was no ONE view of the room, and (B)
there are new rules of thumb. I see these new tests as three: (1) the generic privilege
of the oppressed, (2) working in circles of praxis, of accountability, and (3) testing by
First, there will be no ONE liberation theology or ethics. What we are seeing
is the development of liberation theologies particular to each group working together.
This isn't new. There is no ONE MCC theology - and heaven help the woman or
man who tries to force one on us. Where it is new is that liberation theology
challenges any who claim to speak ex cathedra, to say that theirs is the only truth. So
from the white women's community, primarily, we get feminist liberation theology;
from the Black community we get (male) Black liberation theology and (Alice
Walker style) womanist theology; from Korean, and indigenous American, and Latin
American communities we are seeing vibrant new ways of doing theology emerge.
Now the three working approaches, as we move forward:
The first approach, resting in what we see as God's perennial concern for the
oppressed, as expressed in the prophets — who railed in the name of God at those
who ripped off the poor — the first approach is that there is a "privilege of the
o ppressed ." This corrects for the tendency of those in power to try to name others'
reality, and to keep our own power in place, with lines like "I know what it's like
under the table for you; let me tell you what you are really experiencing." So the first
rule of thumb: instead of privileging dominant language, images, and views of reality,
we accord a privilege to the oppressed.
The second way we get at a new theology is together . We work in base
communities, in circles of accountability and praxis. (Praxis means practice.)
together , accountable to each other, and supporting each other, we reflect on our
experience and on scripture, and then we consider some action (or inaction) in
response to what we have come to believe — some way to begin to transform our
society into the commonwealth of God. Then, later, we will reflect on the experience
of that effort. There is a feedback loop in this process, as well as a real corporate
effort. I believe that it is a natural for us as MCC. How do we construct a theology of
sexual minorities? We begin to do purple liberation theology together.
Together with the privilege of the oppressed, and the circles of praxis, there
is a third approach, which helps keep liberation theology on the track, but which leads
to some amazing conclusions. There is the assumption that what we do is more
revealing — and important to God - than what we believe . This has solid backing in
the Christian Scriptures. Ortho praxis - doing the right thing — is privileged over
Ortho doxy , believing the right thing — and it echoes Jesus' critique of the religious
establishment of his day. If we will be known and judged by our fruits, if what we
DO matters, then a test for theology is what fruits it produces, what results come from
those who believe in it.
Therefore, feminist liberation ethicists look at the Holocaust of Hitler's
Germany, and ask, "what kind of authority should we give to traditional Western
European Christianity, if it could produce a civilization in which this terrible anti-
Jewishness was claimed to be supported by scripture?" We look, many of us, back at
homes where there was incest or other abuse, and ask, "what kind of authority should
we give to traditional Christianity, if this was what it produced and permitted; what
shall we do with the image of a God who sends a child to die horribly, if it is used
over and over by parents who abuse their children?" This test: "what are the fruits?"
is one of the most radical elements of feminist (or any other) liberation theology.
And I think it is solidly Biblical.
I know that as feminists explore with metaphors, with similes, with liturgy,
with social outreach, there is a concern in the Fellowship over some of the details.
I've heard the accusation, "it's satanic!"
If I spread "satanic" into slightly different language, and think of "forces of
evil which are death-dealing," then I believe that we should be worrying about is the
hunger that is all around us and increasing; the poverty and despair that is all around
us and increasing; the gap between rich and poor that is growing; our inability to
move to a peacetime economy with full employment; the increasing greed and
emphasis on appearance rather than substance. These things — and they all are
structural and systemic evils -- these are the things that I see as evil and death-
dealing, and these are the things that I think we should be worrying about.
To review this section, then, liberation theologies will (A) be rather more
provisional than traditional Western Christian theology, not attempting a systematic
expression, and fully cognizant that different communities will embody their
connection with God and each other differently.
And (B) they will base their image of reality on the word of the oppressed;
they will emerge from communities of accountability, support and praxis; and they
will test their own insights, as well as the claims of others, by the results.
This is blowing the trumpet around Jericho. Liberation theology is radical
theology, and it calls for a radical transformation of this society. I was uncomfortable
with it at first; I wanted a lesbian and gay-positive theology with everything else the
same; I believed I could live in Jericho. But now I see liberation theology as an
exciting way to think together about God; I see it as rooted in the life and teachings of
Jesus; I see it as hopeful for our planet, and for our new lives as global citizens; I see
it as a natural for MCC.
Take the last time with your groups: nibble around at this; see how it fits; try
it on for size. Try to come up with a group response in the form of a one-line
comment, or a question for the wrap-up session. Then we'll pull in your group
comments and talk together a bit.
4 (A) Feedback and response, and any analysis:
4 (B) Closing and thanks.
Thorn Rock's feedback:
/ got a note from Thorn four days after the meeting. He and Jim had talked
until two o'clock in the morning. "It's funny how if you talk long enough you can see
the connections in everything!... oppression, crucifixion, status, power, inclusivity,
exclusivity. But, it seems, the connection present throughout is fear. Fear, meaning a
lack of understanding (we are afraid of that which we do not know), a lack of
compassion (we are afraid of pain, of 'suffering with'), a lack of love... Earlier in the
week I wrote this poem; I thought you might enjoy reading it:
JESUS REVEALS HIS SECRET
'It's all done with mirrors, you know.
It 's a trick,
of the wrist, twist
of the mind.
Try it, you '11 see.
Hold up fear -
and you'll see fear
It's all done with mirrors, you know"'
SAMPLES: A PURPLE PASTOR AT WORK
THE SPIRIT IS GIVEN --FOR LIBERATION
(AN ANTI-CHRIST THE KING SERMON)
Part two: doing it
We come now to the second part of this thesis, three short pieces which have
grown out of and been used for MCC congregations, three pastoral pieces, mostly
about the day to day living out of a Ruach purple liberation theology. This is a
sermon which I first preached in MCC Philadelphia, then revised for use at MCC in
the Mountains. It is returned to its original text, with the happy juxtaposition of
Ruach texts on top of the feast of Christ the King. I was visiting Philadelphia in
November, 1991, and it was my first chance to be with these good friends since my
licensing as clergy in July, 1991. Because my relationship with them is so much a part
of the sermon, I'm leaving the warm-up part in place. That congregation was at a
cusp in a number of ways; they were shrinking, they had lost two good clergy (Joseph
Gilbert and Darlene Garner), in a two year period, and they were dealing with that
change as well as working with an interim lay pastor.
[Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, Acts 2:14-18, Luke 4:14-21.]
A last sermon as a child of this congregation...
It is wonderful to be with you!
You were the church: who took me in off the street when I had tangled with
an Episcopal bishop; who taught me what it means to be MCC; who brought me out,
way further out than I had any plans of being; who taught me the joy of being whole
persons; who prepared me to be clergy; (and put up with some learning experiences
so bad that the phone wires burned from here to Baltimore...). Above all , you gave
me the gift of yourselves ... you shared parts of your lives with me, and it was an
amazing gift. I've written a love poem about you; I showed it to friends in Cambridge.
This sermon is in celebration of that work which you did in my life, in
celebration of my licensing as clergy July 15th (YES!). It's also the last time I can
preach among you as a child of this congregation — now I have a new one, and I am
just at the edge of coming among you as something else, a "visiting preacher". You
know, we could be called your farthest mission congregation up there in Vermont:
three of us — Liz Ruga, Phyllis Long, and I, were on your books until the day when we
were some of the first members received in September — and it was wonderful to
have seven of you up there with us.
It's also scary to preach among you...
It's scary because: you are on my heart in this transition of yours -
I want you to come to find yourselves (almost surprised as you do it), as a jewel of
God's love in this valley. I want you to come to be a community of mission and
solace, of support and accountability, of friends and fellow-journeyers, so filled with
the Spirit, so filled with the Spirit, that people flock to you.
And I don't know the words to say, even to begin to help you on that journey
of risk and change, to be and become all you can be. So I asked friends to pray for
you, for us, that I would find what to say.
And it is scary, because Bonnie and I have spent a long weekend together,
and in my usual way, I am worried about what she will think...
AND it is scary, because in the rest of the Western liturgical world, this is the
feast of Christ the King — this, the last Sunday in the season of Pentecost, in the
season of the Holy Spirit, of the Sacred Spirit, this Sunday has been kidnapped to
be a feast of kingship, and kings, and vertical power dynamics, and I am so convinced
that the wrong use of power is one of the things that plagues us, that I am preaching
against the feast of Christ the King. (That's ok, folks - I am getting a reputation in
the Northeast district as the woman who preached the sermon against Mother's
But with all this scaryness, will you pray with me? [extempore invocation
A new and critical re-imaging of power...
I suggest, first, that in Jesus, we find a new, and critical, re-imaging of power.
I suggest that we find, not in Christ the King, but in Jesus, an image, a model
of empowerment, of power in right relation. In a society like ours, to image God as
king, as reigning in power-over - "God the eternal top" — is to run the risk of
sanctioning, even sacrilizing, all human forms of power over. If Christ is king, then
kings are ordained of God. And if Christ is king, then it's ok for George Bush to
dump hell in Iraq; it's ok for Sadat to sit in a bunker while children die; it's ok for
those in power to be abusive and peremptory. It's ok — to get closer to home — for
straight young skinheads to beat us up, and for straight clergy to say that AIDS is
God's judgement, and for parents to abuse their children, and for rich men to decide
that poor women must have babies, and for Bush to lower his friends' taxes while he
fills the streets with the poor. It's ok - to get even closer to home — for us to clutch
our own power and make others unwelcome, when they come in and aren't dressed
right... It's ok that we, as middle class U.S. citizens get Hammacher-Schlemmer
Christmas catalogues, while a mother in Brazil makes newspaper cakes — a
combination of newspaper and water — to feed her children to reduce the hunger
And if this is what the wrong use of power causes, then we need to move
away from images of God as sanctioning power-over.
And I suggest to you, my friends, that we are paralyzed, spiritually , on power
issues, that we want to see power as a zero sum, as win/lose, as either you've got it or
you don't... George Bush and John Majors and the slick power brokers have it; the
bag lady on the grate doesn't...
And we are in terror of not having it... so we will manipulate, lie, cheat,
squeeze, even kill, to clutch power for fear of losing it all... In our terror, we kill each
other; in our terror we barricade our souls; so we cannot know God's blessing, so we
cannot know God's power : so we cannot know God's gifts , so we cannot know God's
love so we've got to stop .
A new power dynamic...
Behold, says God: behold, I show you another way. In Jesus — as we have the
accounts of his life — and in the discerning of the Spirit among us — we see a new
power dynamic, a new way with power, an em-powering of others (which is, itself,
redemption), a call to mutual empowering, a sharing of power, a dance of mutual
empowerment. Behold, God says, I do a new thing among you.
The gospel for today comes at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It is from
Luke, who has a great theme of the Holy Spirit. It echoes the Isaiah passage you
heard as the first lesson, and Isaiah's alternative vision of a society organized in
justice and compassion, where the Spirit is given FOR the proclamation of that
It also echoes the prophet Joel, and his sense that the Spirit would be poured
out on all persons, and that old men and women would dream dreams, and that young
women and men would see visions — and we have Luke's picking up of that prophetic
image of the day of the Spirit among us into his account of Peter's sermon at
Pentecost, at the beginning of Acts.
In Jesus, at the baptism, according to all four gospel writers, there was the
giving and filling with the Spirit; Jesus understood himself as the Human One, the
Child of God and of humanity. Then, according to Luke, immediately after that,
there was a time in the wilderness, living with the meaning of that mission, living with
the temptation to use that power wrongly - to use bread (solo) to feed the hungry,
instead of coaching us to do it; to have all the power in the world: kingdoms full of it;
to do dramatic miracles... and instead, through wrestling with the temptation to
misuse it, he learned what the Spirit is given FOR: — listen again to the gospel...
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a
report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in
their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the
synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll
of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place
where it was written:
The Spirit of the Eternal One is upon me,
and has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of God's favor.
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The
eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today
this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Now quickly, I want to suggest three points from this reading: (1), that the
Spirit is given, (2) that she is given for liberation , and (3), that she is given for the
living out of mutuality, connection, and mission.
The Spirit is given...
First, the Spirit is given -- we've got to believe that — and it's time to start
coming out about the wonder of God in our lives. This collar, you know, almost turns
me into a spiritual voyeur — over the time I have known you, you have shared the
most incredible moments of God in your life - so I know that the Spirit is given, and
has been, among us... It's time, now, for you all to start coming out about that to each
We are not the Spruce Street Singers, or Diane's bowling league, or a club ~
we are a church, a community drawn together by God, drawn together by God to
grow together, in the power and connection of the Spirit.
You know, for instance, you're starting the pastoral search process. And you
ask all kinds of questions of people who hope to come be your pastor. But when my
time comes to candidate for a pulpit, I'm going to be asking questions of the
congregation: how many of you are praying? how many of you are reading and
journaling? how many of you are tithing? how many of you are doing works of mercy
in the world? Because these are the signs of the Spirit among us — ordinary lives that
start to change. . .
And not only is the Spirit given, the Spirit is given for healing. It showed up
immediately in the ministry of Jesus. In an AIDS healing service this week ~ when I
was asking friends to pray for us all tonight - there was, over and over, the most
wonderful image: a person would go to a small group of people and ask for prayers,
and then be pulled into the group and begin praying for others — it was like a dance,
like a circle dance — it was the wonder of the Spirit at work.
The Spirit is given for liberation...
The point of the gospel, and the wonder of it and its ties to Isaiah, as Luke
sets them up, is that it connects to images of real justice, real liberation, for the poor,
for the captives, for the blind, for the oppressed ~ powerful images of freedom!
Across Latin America, small groups of people, mostly Christian, risk their lives in
joining in community with each other, to support each other — and as they meet and
work together, they are working for justice and for liberation. The Spirit isn't given
for our comfort, to make us religious success stories; she is given to empower us to
bring about freedom and justice.
To be sure, God also deals with our spiritual poverty — good news about
those things which hold us captive, the restoration of seeing and vision, release from
our oppression, and our oppressiveness - but the real reason for the gift of the Spirit
is for the transforming of our world, for the bringing of the commonwealth of God.
Just because we're lesbian and gay, bisexual and transsexual, just because we know
some pain around that, doesn't mean that we don't need to be transformed, and to
move much, much further toward doing justice. A friend of Carter Heyward's talks
about the temptation of the gay-affirming churches to be just more "patriarchy with a
It tears at our guts to let go with God and take a risk for change and justice;
it is scary - but as we let go, we will find that God is pulling us further and further
towards compassion and justice, toward the healing of our world and our souls; we
will find that we have lost nothing that mattered and found everything that did, in
knowing the Spirit as gift for liberation.
Gift for mutual connection and mission...
Finally, we find that the Spirit is given among us to empower us for
connection and mission. She comes among us and makes us a community which will
attract others. From the earliest days, people have said, "look at those Christians;
look at how they love one another." Troy has a chausible with that line on it: "they
will know we are Christians by our love". That love, as we grow in it, will call us out
of ourselves and out of this room to connect to others.
This was originally going to be a mission sermon — you know, in my other
life, I'm a mission pastor - and it still needs to end there. Jim Burns, of MCC New
Haven, gave a workshop on church growth, and he said that a congregation must
always be willing to change, to accept a little discomfort, for the sake of the next
people who will come through the door. Think about that: we give up a little bit of
our coziness, so that the new person will feel welcome, will find a place. Before we
even see people, we make a pre-commitment to be ready for them.
I'm going to tell you how MCC in the Mountains got its name. We had a
"name that church" session, and then a final vote. And we were plugging for the Spirit
to be in our name, somehow, and I expected it would be. And then one afternoon
this summer, I was just whipped after a day in the hospital where I was acting as an
assistant chaplain. Three men had died that day, and I was just wiped out... so much
so that I neatly drove the left front fender into the parking garage post as I left work. . .
So I drove down the Connecticut River for a little rest, and there, across the river, I
could see Mt. Ascutney. It is a "monadnock", a word that comes from the Indians, for
a mountain that stands alone, so you get a terrific view from the top. I had climbed it
the weekend before, in the rain, and saw zip, and there it was, in full view. "I wonder
what it looks like," I thought; so I went and drove up the auto road, and spent the last
half hour hiking up — in my skirt — to the fire tower I had seen the weekend before.
The view was fantastic. I could look down into Massachusetts, and up as far
northwest as Camel's Hump, and over in the east to the White Mountains, and the
rim of mountains across the Connecticut. I bounced from side to side of the tower,
looking all around. And I suddenly realized why we - the little group meeting in Liz
and Phyl's living room and trying to get up enough courage to be a church — I
realized why we had been gathered together. Because I realized that for as far as I
could see, if lesbians and gay men, if transgendered persons, transsexuals and
bisexuals were to hear the word that God loves them , to hear unequivocally that they
are called - beloved - chosen - drawn into relationship with God, that word was going
to have to come through us. or through someone like us. or sent out from us . And I
shared the story with the congregation, and - lo - there we are, MCC in the
So I have a challenge for you — it's a sacred moment, so don't do it lightly.
Get yourself up on the tallest thing in Philadelphia, and start to look around. Into the
central west section of New Jersey, north toward Allentown, west toward Harrisburg
and Lancaster, south toward Baltimore — as far as you can see, there are sisters and
brothers of ours who need to know about God's love, about God's hope, about God's
healing, about the in-breaking of the realm and the gift of the Spirit and of
community. As far as you can see, men and women — most of them that you haven't
even seen yet — need you, need each of you, need this church to be here and be
The Spirit is given,
for justice and liberation,
for connection and mission.
Go for it!
Questions for discussion:
1. What does the connection between the Spirit and liberation mean for
2. For what is the Spirit given in your life? (for what task, what challenge,
what mission, what transformation?)
[This poem tries to get at the ifaac/z-liberation connection by celebrating
some new images, some new focal points in the story of our relationships with God.
It emerged out of Carter Heyward's Christology seminar in 1991, and my question to
myself of whether it would be possible to move the paradigm image of God from that
of "Father-Son in abusive relationship" to "Spirit spiraling-empowering-loving." This
was an attempt at that. I finally read it - shyly - during early Pentecost 1991 to my
friends in the congregation as most of a sermon on the Spirit.]
In the beginning...
or the beginning of what we can imagine,
what we can vision,
what we can intuit,
In the beginning
the Sacred Spirit laughed...
and said, YES!...
and the creation of our creation began...
the shooting forth of spirals of energy,
the birthing of new being,
born of passion and com-passion,
energy of the power and passion of the Spirit,
who moaned and groaned and labored in the birthing,
who so filled the creation and remained connected
that we do not find the edge
where we can say God is not in her creation,
who holds it, embraces it — and all parts of it — so intensely
that we do not find the moment
when we can say that God is not with her creation,
who holds, it, nurtures it, moves in and with it
toward wholeness, toward a dance of connection.
It was not birthed in an instant,
Nor has it reached maturity yet
The Spirit still broods, moves, coinheres,
flames the poets and prophets and dreamers...
This piece of creation,
this piece we know best. . .
is part of a minor spiral of energy in an off-corner of the web
born in a starbirth
born of the whirl of the spiral
and the ongoing passion and brooding of the Spirit
who sings the connection of humpbacks at sea,
and bursts forth the riot of orchards in bloom.
We should never take geometry without biology,
the cold logic without the hot sciences,
so that we remember the complexity,
the millions of varieties
and that this is just one corner
of one spiral
of the energy of one great laughing, lusty YES...
We know the connection and the Spirit in that which touches us for wholeness;
There may be as many ways she moves among and in and with us
as there are sunbursts shimmering on wavetops.
We know that she connects us,
and connects us with each other,
moving, brooding, tending, yearning,
restarting, reweaving, renewing --
Our history, when we save and tell the healing parts of it,
when we dare to remember it,
where we dare to whisper it,
when we dare to hear it,
Our history suggests to me that many of us — I would like to believe all —
know a moment — or more than one —
when God catches us off guard
and shimmers a lovesong at us,
a shameless pass for our souls and passion,
an invitation to the dance of the spiral...
And we learn it - if at all - slowly and clumsily,
like a waltz (ONE-two three),
The dance is the dance with each other, with God, with creation;
small sea horses do it,
wild stallions do it,
the solar wind does it,
humans can learn to do it.
The fear of the dance, of each other, of the Matrix of the dance,
is the root of evil,
because then we clutch for safety.
From the beginning of the time we know,
singers and poets and shamans have called us to the dance,
even hooked our passion, and compassion, with their merriment
helping us to be singers, poets, farmers, lovers...
And from the beginning of the time we know,
we also have fled from the dance,
taken our marbles (and other people's) and gone away,
run into the pain of disconnection,
slashed at others, at the earth, with that pain.
Most of us, at times,
are singers and slashers both.
But we can - if we risk it -
if we will let her take our hearts for a spin,
we can tell the difference between song and spear,
know that one connects and reconnects,
empowers and frees,
and the other does not.
And the glimpses, the shimmers, the knowings we have been given,
suggest that the dance does not just whirl and heal across space
and the other dancing-creatures
of the planets and the stars and the nebulae
but that the dance also whirls and heals across time
and beyond the time that we can measure by ticks
into that which all time is present.
In the tradition I know best,
we call some of our singers "prophets"
once they are safely dead,
and we can keep them from singing even more radical songs.
We sense that the Spirit has moved them...
We sense that we sense that in the power of the Spirit...
In the Christian tradition,
we find that if we come together intentionally,
willing — even some of us ~ to risk being set on fire by the Spirit,
there will be a surge of connection,
and we will hear/know/receive the song,
be pulled into the dance,
even sing a bit ourselves.
If we are willing to be with another,
we will know the surge among and in and through us.
Who knows, if we were to take hands right now,
and focus in willingness,
a species in the Amazon might live through the day.
In the tradition I know best,
we have remembered some of the soaring songs —
Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Miriam
and some of the raucous pokey-fun ones —
Jonah, the unscrupulous steward, the rich man in hell
and we find that we hear the Spirit singing through the ages.
At a moment and place way out in the spiral,
Jesus came dancing, inviting all comers,
Cartwheeled with Ruach round the shores of the Sea,
Snatched stars with the blind
and waltzed with the lame.
He bantered with women,
leapfrogged the lawyers,
cake-walked the wonder that God loves the poor
pulled friends out of trees,
and even made moonshine,
inviting his friends to the mirth of the Spirit.
Soon peasants were dancing,
dancing new rhythms,
healing and risking and changing and living,
connecting and trusting, with freedom, with passion,
cutting down palm fronds and shouting like Zealots.
The chief priests scowled and plotted.
Who does he think HE is?
Why does he not check with us?
Our world is spinning and may never be stable.
This will not do.
We will have a trial, they said;
We will get rid of him.
So they did.
Except that it didn't work.
His friends were now shouting,
Singing the spiral,
Calling the rhythm of a dance across death,
Calling to others to join in the circle,
the give and the take, and the wind and the fire.
Old men with dreams,
young women with visions...
It was not birthed in an instant,
Nor has it reached maturity yet
The Spirit still keeps singing,
flaming the power,
filling the prophets:
Francis, Sojourner, Martin, Alice, Harvey.
Come to the dance,
the dance of the spiral,
the healing and whole-making of all that there is,
come be a poet, a prophet, a dreamer.
Questions for discussion:
1. New images: can you sing, or dance, or write a poem, or a letter,
or draw a picture of the Sacred Spirit, of God as you image God?
2. What did you most like about each other's images?
A RUACH LIBERATION EUCHARISTIC CANON
[This is the canon we used in September 1991 as we received our first
members. A few things are worth pointing out. First, we have, as a community of
MCC in the Mountains, deliberately moved from "body" and "blood" language at the
eucharist in solidarity with two courageous women among us, survivors of childhood
ritual abuse. Secondly, as a community, we talk about our common worship, and
maintain an exploratory stance. Third, two liberating characteristics of MCC worship
do not show here, but are worth mentioning. Anyone, lay or ordained, may act as the
principal celebrant among the community; and couples — or good friends — usually
receive communion together. Our language at MCC in the Mountains is very
intentionally inclusive, as one variety of congregational response to the Fellowship's
policy of inclusive language. Finally, in this canon, I pulled in the prayers of the
people, at the good suggestion of Patrick Campbell of EDS, because the rest of the
service was so long.]
The Liturgy of the Table:
The Great Thanksgiving:
Preface : [from Hildegard of Bingen, d. 1173] (1)
Leader: God is with you, and among us.
People: God is with us always.
1 Adapted from Gabrielle Uhlein, Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen,
(Santa Fe, Bear & Company), p. 40.
Let your hearts rejoice in God, our hope.
It is right to rejoice and give thanks to God;
O Holy Spirit,
Fiery Comforter Spirit,
Life of the life of all creatures,
Holy are you,
you that give existence to all form.
Fire of love,
breath of all holiness,
you are so delicious to our hearts;
you are the mighty way in which
everything that is in the heavens,
on the earth,
and under the earth,
is penetrated with relatedness.
Therefore with angels and archangels and all the friends of God,
we join together and say:
Holy, holy, holy God
God of power and grace,
heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosannah in the highest!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God;
Hosannah in the highest!
Prayer of consecration:
Holy and Blessed God,
Your Spirit brooded on us in creation,
and you spun out galaxies, dancing islands of light in the sea of space;
You brought forth this world,
and filled it with all manner of species,
the trees we see cloaked in scarlet,
humpback whales singing connection in the ocean deeps,
wild geese circling,
the dogs and cats closest to us who share our hearts and hearths.
And you called us to your heart,
to be stewards in this creation,
to love it, and You, and each other.
We have failed to do this,
and so you have raised up prophets among us
in this and every generation,
to call us back to you,
to remind us of your love,
to call us to care for the earth and for each other.
And in the center of time, you sent Jesus among us,
filled and radiant with your Spirit and your being;
he proclaimed the breaking forth of your realm,
your commonwealth, among us,
he called community around him,
he proclaimed your will for justice and compassion.
We remember that the night he was betrayed,
at table with friends,
he took bread
and when he had given thanks to you he broke it
and gave it to them, saying,
this is my life which will be given for you,
as often as you are together, do this,
and realize that I am very truly present among you;
and likewise after supper, he took the cup,
and when he had given thanks,
he gave it to them and said,
this is my love which is poured out for you,
as often as you are together, do this,
and remember me.
We remember the mystery of our faith:
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
And we offer you these gifts, and ourselves,
and we ask you to pour out your Spirit on them, and on us,
that they -- and we -- may become, today,
the life and the love of the Risen Christ among us,
given and sent as a sign of your love and your reconciliation.
We join in prayer for all faith communities,
especially for this mission church,
for the churches from which we come,
and for all who seek you, and seek community,
that they may find, and be found of you.
We pray for our world, for peace, and for justice...
We pray for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed,
for those who grieve. . .
We pray for those who are departed,
and who rest in your love [, especially..]
And we thank you that we do not do this alone,
but in union with all your people,
with all the friends of God, past, present, and yet to come,
and with Christ and in Christ,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be all honor and glory,
now and forevermore,
O Holy God of fire and justice. Amen.
[The prayer that Jesus taught...]
Questions for discussion:
1. Brainstorming, think of all the ways that your small group, or community,
could celebrate your relationships with each other, and with God.
2. Pick one or two of the ways, and then begin to talk about it. What is
special? What do you learn from it?
3. How can the messages of our language, ritual, and imagery be liberating?
THINKING ABOUT RUACH AND PURPLE LIBERATION
SCRIPTURE AS THE GATHERED COMMUNITY'S TELLING OF RUACH
TOWARD A PURPLE LIBERATION APPROACH TO THE BIBLE
We begin the third part, now, having laid the groundwork for a Ruach purple
liberation theology, and having looked at it in "feet-on-the-ground" mode. In this
section, we will be thinking together about some of the questions that come up,
specifically in these next three chapters. In this chapter, we look at some of the issues
in approaching the Bible, and also suggest, in the section on the prophets, that a
liberation theology of the Spirit is Biblical. In the next chapter, we will look at the
earliest church experience of Ruach and liberation, and the tensions between the
church in Corinth and Paul, suggesting that this liberation theology of the Spirit is
true to the experience of the early church. In the final chapter, we will begin to look
at the mission of the gathered community, and tie to the thesis statement that a
Ruach liberation theology is appropriate for MCC today.
An old man reciting the history...
At the end of Roots: The Next Generations, the character playing Alex Haley
gets to Gambia, to the back-country river village from which his ancestor may have
come. He only knows one name, "Kinte", and seeks a verification of the story which
has come to him by oral tradition preserved among the elders of his (American)
family. He sits listening to the translation of the words of a senior man in the tribe,
who is ceremoniously dressed in a robin's egg blue cape, clearly a person of honor,
the one who remembers the long history. Many of the villagers stay and sit around to
hear this recitation, which seemed to me to be of the same genre as the "begats" in the
Hebrew Scriptures: someone is born, then there are twenty rains, then someone else
is born. Haley is nearly asleep with the repetitious quality of the list, and then
suddenly there it is: Kunta Kinte was born, and after so many rains, went out to cut a
tree to make a drum, and was not seen again in the village. Haley asks for a repeat
several times, and then goes to his own notes and reads back, from his aunt's oral
tradition, "he went out to cut a tree to make a drum, and was taken captive. . . " Across
generations, in both oral traditions, the tree-cutting to make a drum was remembered
as part of a story of capture and disappearance.
At the root of much of the Hebrew Scriptures, at the root of the Christian
gospels, are oral traditions , stories told — and sequences of stories told again and
again, recited among the gathered community, which delights in the rembering of
their history. As the stories are told and retold, some of the elements stay constant,
while details change. In 1987, I heard John McNeill tell his story about the Pope's
special telephone to heaven, which could be used by a visitor who could afford the
very high long distance rates, and how the call was "a local call" in Ireland. I heard
him tell it again in the spring of 1992, and it was a perfect example of oral tradition in
that there was no change in the key elements: pope, telephone, expensive, (Irish)
bishop, telephone, local call; but the other details had been varied.
Joanna Dewey notes that there are different classes of people who tell
stories: the man who remembered the Roots tradition was clearly elite, or a retainer
of a chieftan. She notes that rhetors who performed Homer were literate. Popular
storytellers, she says, are more flexible in their stories, and are scorned in a literate
culture, particularly those storytellers who are associated with women and children.
Nevertheless, under every Biblical narrative of the history of the people of Israel lies
a story which was once told, retold, and treasured.
Among our own communities, we have told stories together, sat together in
living rooms or church offices and shared some of the things that matter deeply to us,
shared those remembered, reconsidered moments when we knew we have
encountered the Sacred One in our own lives. At times I retell what one of you has
shared in another place, among another community. The stories have some self-
checking built in: if I tell of the resurrection appearance of a friend's lover in
Rittenhouse Square at a funeral where the man who experienced it is present, the
details will get checked, and anchored a bit. All these stories, I believe, are part of
our extended "scriptures", and partake of the nature of that limited block of material
which we usually refer to as "scripture." For scripture is, I believe, the treasured,
increasingly authorized (and increasingly elitist) version of the communal
rememberings of God among us. But it began with a telling or a reciting. And our
recitings are the beginnings of the extended canons in our communities — extended
canons which will never become official, but which are part of broader inventories of
the "stories of the Sacred" among any given group.
The image of the old man doing the formal repetition in Roots sticks in my
mind. Not only were these stories told among community, a community with
particular needs as they listened, but these were stories primarily told by men ,
presumeably heterosexual men, those who held some power among the gathered
community, who chose to remember and tell some events and not others, telling and
shaping them in the context of their communities. Since I believe that the root of
these stories is the remembered encounter with God, or a part or preparation or
after-effect of that story, among the community who shared and shaped the memories
— since I believe that the Spirit moves in the community whom she forms, moves in
our communities when we are together in accountability and support, then the faith
statement of the MCC bylaws makes sense, describing the Bible as "the divinely
inspired Word of God". But as we say this, we need not to claim exclusivity for it
because we sense the inspiration of the Sacred Spirit in the whole heritage of the
communities of faith for whom it is sacred story, and recognize that the reason we
open and expand the canon is to allow ourselves to hear voices which also speak of
God, voices telling those stories which elite men did not see as worthy of writing
down. Intuitively, after the moment of shock (What? You don't believe in the
Bible?") ("I don't believe in the Bible as what?") -- intuitively, after the shock
moment, we can see, as purple people, that we have necessarily had to add our own
stories, and to struggle with others. A story added — and it is so much a part of our
lives that I capitalize it in title form - is the "Call of Troy Perry". A story to be
struggled with is the Genesis account of Sodom.
Not a fax message from God
Reformers, in every age, have tried to appeal from church to the Bible; the
Protestant Reformation depended on such an appeal. William Countryman says that
"reformers in every age appeal to Scripture in attacking what they see as the errors of
existing church life." (1) Given this, there is a wish, floating in the atmosphere,
almost, that the Bible would be unequivocally clear as the voice of God, free of its
contextuality and easily comprehended. It is not. We do not have, in Hebrew or
Christian scripture, a fax message from God which can be applied unreflectingly to
our situation. We have the recorded memories of some of the friends of God, and
the Bible invites us into that community. The contextuality is a given for passages
1 William Countryman, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny: Scripture and
the Christian Pilgrimage, (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1981), 69.
from scripture, as for all communications. Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza says that we
need to begin with a rhetorical analysis of text as communication between
writer/teller and audience, meeting in the inscribed world of the text, with its social-
political and symbolic assumptions, and also in the historical world shared by
writer/teller and audience, with its social-political and symbolic assumptions. All this
contextuality is unavoidably present. Consider, within our own world and experience,
the full complexity of the message contained in a billboard liquor ad done in radiant
realism, with an elegant bottle being put into its flannel case, and the caption: "How
to pack for the weekend." Or the Pepsi "Uh-huh" campaign, with all of its subtle
messages. These arise from context, and so do the symbols of biblical material.
In addition, Schssler Fiorenza would argue for a further complexity: with
each editing, each redaction, each reworking, a further rhetorical message was being
communicated through the text, between yet other authors and readers, with their
complex worlds of symbolic meaning and historical encounter.
When we do a power analysis, we realize that these oral stories tended to
support the power of those (presumeably heterosexual) men who told them, of those
who preserved and recited them, of those who selected them and merged them into
preliminary textual form, of those who edited and redacted them into very nearly the
texts we have today, of those who decided that a given writing would be bought and
read among a congregation, of those who edged toward the final decision that this or
that writing would be in the Christian canon, of those who claim to interpret them
today, of those who define that they contain "truth" with a capital "T", a "truth" which
invalidates the truth of other people. Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza writes, "Since for
various reasons the New Testament authors were not interested in extolling women's
and slaves' active participation in the Christian movement, we can methodologically
assume that the early Christian writers transmit only a fraction of the possibly rich
tradition of women's contributions to the early Christian movement." (2)
Only one true authority...
Countryman argues that there can be only one true authority — God alone,
and that practical, everyday authority rests in the Christian community (3). I would
go beyond this, and say not only that the authority rests in the Spirit, guiding and
perceived by/among the community of praxis, but also that there is a correlation
between the community's faithfulness in praxis and the accuracy of its understanding
of the leading of the Spirit. But how can the base community of liberation use
scripture? What is our hermeneutic (our approach to scripture) ?
A lead from Dolores Williams and Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza...
Dolores Williams, an African- American womanist liberation theologian,
quotes Edward Farley and Peter Hodgson's definition of the "scripture principle" as
the understanding of scripture as "...a unique deposit of divine revelation — a deposit
whose special qualities are due to its inspired origins, and which is to be handed down
through the ages by an authoritative teaching tradition." (4) But she makes it clear
that she is describing a "scripture" broader than the Bible, and then proceeds to argue
that African- American slaves created, in the survival and liberation traditions, their
own "authoritative teaching tradition ", in which they passed on what they had
2 Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza, "Remembering the Past in Creating the
Future: Historical-Critical Scholarship and Feminist Biblical Interpretation", in Adela
Yarbro Collins, ed., Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, (Atlanta, Scholars
Press, 1985), 60.
3 Countryman, 50-57.
4 Dolores Williams, A Study of the Analogous Relation Between African-
American Women's Experience and Hagar's Experience, (unpublished doctoral
"extracted from scripture as good news for their lives." Broadening and extending
scripture beyond the canon, she sees this action in the creation of "teaching authority
contrary to the usual white pro-slavery authority (often the white church) that was
trying to teach them how God intended and scripture validated their slavery" as
"related to what ethicist Peter Paris refers to as black people creating an alternative
gospel..." (5) Williams speaks of "writing our own scripture", and it is worth noticing
that Katie Geneva Cannon and Carter Heyward, also Union-trained feminists, speak
of "opening the canon." We have experimented with an expanded canon in MCC in
the Mountains; second lessons at the eucharist have been taken from Hildegard of
Bingen, Matthew Fox, an old Russian folk tale; from Jose Comblin, Robert McAfee
Brown, and Oscar Romero on liberation; from some of Thorn Rock's poetry on
Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza is uncompromising:
I would therefore suggest that the revelatory canon for theological
evaluation of biblical androcentric traditions and their subsequent
interpretations cannot be derived from the Bible itself but can only be
formulated in and through women's struggle for liberation from all
patriarchal oppression... The advocacy stance of liberation theologies
cannot accord revelatory authority to any oppressive and destructive
biblical text or tradition." (6)
Following Williams and Schssler Fiorenza, we will, as the purple community,
revere the Bible and appropriate it for liberation (ours, that of other oppressed
persons, of earth and sea and sky-creatures, of the earth itself), as well as
acknowledging an advocacy stance, and critiquing those passages which support our
oppression. Within this advocacy stance we will acknowledge that the Bible emerges
5 Ibid, 64-65.
6 Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist
Reconstruction of Christian Origins, (New York, Crossroad, 1990 ), 32-33.
from a culture which was androcentric and patriarchal (assuming males as the norm,
and assuring male power), as well as a culture which was heterosexist (assuming that
only between a man and a woman was sexual love acceptable). A hermeneutics of
liberation, a way of reading scripture for liberation in the purple church, will criticize
those cultural biases in the Bible, and will seek by imaginative reconstruction and
expansion, as well as by stretching the definition of scripture, to construct a wider
view, one in which women and sexual minorities are valued.
The Gaybashing Passages: instances of prejudice, not condemnation
Of particular importance for the purple church is the approach to the six
biblical passages (7) which appear to condemn homosexuality. For an entire
generation, books written by supporters of the purple community dealt, pro forma,
with these passages (8), but this misses the point of the liberation position. None of
the six passages deals with the modern phenomenon of homosexuality; none of them
is in tune with the great longitudinal themes of love, or justice for the oppressed in
Biblical material; with the exception of the Sodom story, which is about an attempted
gang-rape and violation of the rule of hospitality. The language of the Corinthians
and Timothy passages is unclear. What is not unclear is the prejudice of society — the
7 Genesis 19:1-25 (Sodom), Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (Holiness Code),
Romans 1:25-27, I Corinthians 6:9, I Timothy 1:10.
8 For instance, John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and
Homosexuality, (1980); William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex, Sexual Ethics in the
New Testament and Their Implications for Today, (1988); Day, Things They Never
Taught You in Sunday School: A Primer for the Christian Homosexual, (1987);
Edwards, Gay /Lesbian Liberation: A Biblical Perspective, (1984); Furnish, The Moral
Teaching of Paul, (1979); Horner, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical
Times, (1978); John McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, (1976); James Nelson,
Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology, (1978), and Between
Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience, (1983); Scanzoni and
Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, (1978); Scroggs, The New Testament
and Homsexuality , (1983).
prejudice of society which created and transmitted the texts, the prejudice of society
which translated the texts, and the prejudice of today's readers of the texts who
selectively use them in service of maintaining the oppression of sexual minorities.
It is time to view these texts in parallel with the texts which were read in
support of slavery, in support of the second-class status of women and children, in
support of the death penalty, in support of obedience to kings. In each of the other
cases, pre-liberation and liberation theologians have first argued the overwhelming
sense of scripture for justice and compassion against the particular passages
supporting what we now find morally unacceptable, and then argued against the
modern societal continuance of oppression. We need to see that the discovery that
the texts are repugnant is a gift of the Spirit, leading the community of praxis.
In the line of the prophets (and ruach liberation theology as biblical)
This is nothing new. The prophets stood in dialogue with societal
oppression and religious practices of their day. Amos: "I hate... your festivals, and I
take no delight in your solemn assemblies... but let justice roll down like waters, and
righteousness like an everlasting stream." (5:21,24) Micah: "what does YHWH
require of you, but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?"
(6:8) Third Isaiah describes why the fasts of the people are problematic:
"Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your
workers... Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to
undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break
every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the
homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and
not to hide yourself from your own kin? (58:4a, 6-7)
Again and again, Jesus, arguing with the religious authorities of his day,
corrected their reading of religious tradition. In Matthew's controversy tradition, we
see Jesus paralleling Isaiah, arguing that justice and the love of God are basic. (23:23)
Walter Brueggemann speaks of Luke's narrative account of the sermon at
Nazareth, the passage I take as a paradigm of liberation (4: 16-21):
Implicit in the announcement [the coming of the kingdom] is the
counterpart that present kingdoms will end and be displaced. In Luke 4:18-
19 he announced that a new age was beginning, but that announcement
carried in it a harsh criticism of all those powers and agents of the present
order. His message was to the poor, but others kept them poor and
benefitted from their poverty. He addressed the captives (which means
bonded slaves), but others surely wanted that arrangement unchanged. He
named the oppressed, but there are never oppressed without oppressors.
His ministry carried out the threat implicit in these two fundamental
announcements. The ministry of Jesus is, of course, criticism that leads to
radical dismantling. And as is characteristic the guardians and profiteers of
the present stability are acutely sensitive to any change that may question or
challenge the present arrangement. Very early Jesus is correctly perceived
as a clear and present danger to that order, and this is the problem with the
promissory newness of the gospel: it never promised without threatening, it
never begins without ending something, it never gives gifts without assessing
harsh costs. (9)
In an ongoing prophetic stance critical of the society, we name societal
organization which supports and maintains the oppression of persons of sexual
minorities, persons of color, women, or children, as well as all societal organizations
which maintain hierarchies of class and power, as well as all politio-socio-economic
systems which impoverish and starve the poor, as wrong and sinful — and we claim to
do this in the tradition of Jesus and the prophets. Liberation theology in general,
then, and purple liberation theology in particular, always has the nature of the
prophetic. Walter Brueggemann defines the prophetic task:
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness
and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the
dominant culture around us. (10)
The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly
to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to
match the vision of God's freedom...
9 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Philadelphia,
Fortress, 1978), 83.
10 Ibid., 13.
We will not understand the meaning of prophetic imagination unless we see
the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of
oppression and exploitation. (11)
The fact that if we are prophetic, we also call ourselves to the formation of "a
new social community", also call ourselves to repentance and transformation, may
explain why we have been tempted, thus far, to be overly gentle with fundamentalist
versions of "static triumphalism", to say "Oh yes, we will just adjust the reading of
this one passage and leave the rest of the patriarchy and heterosexism in place." If
that is the case, we have been co-opted by the systems and structures of this world,
and we will never know liberation.
One of the key sources for a purple biblical approach comes from feminist
work, as women have had to deal with invisibility in much of the biblical narrative,
and negative passages as well. In the balance of this chapter, I want to look at
Carolyn Osiek's categorization of the possible feminist reponses, and at Elisabeth
Schssler Fiorenza's feminist interpretative model.
Feminist approaches to scripture as categorized by Osiek:
In "The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives", Carolyn Osiek
lays out a spectrum of possible responses to the problem of working with the biblical
material with the goal of integrating it into a contemporary context. No one sample
of the spectrum is rigorously detailed, but it strikes me as a useful image, because our
options as purple people are so similar.
First, she describes the rejectionist alternative , and she uses Mary Daly as an
example of that position, which urges women to leave the Jewish and Christian legacy
11 Ibid., 17. For a contemporary documentation of that connection, see
Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, (Boston, South
End Press, 1989).
altogether and form a post-christian faith. In the sexual minority community, we
know men and women who have done a similar rejection. Mary Hunt, who still says
she is a Catholic when asked, said in an address to lesbian and gay seminarians,
In the climate, and in order not to get coopted by it, I speak of myself as in,
out and beyond the church because it is the only expression that comes
close to capturing my theo-political and spiritual location. I think it is time
to be frank about the fact that many religious feminists, myself included,
who have struggled long and hard for ecclesial justice have moved beyond
Christianity as the primary referent for our faith. (12)
Osiek's second option is the "loyalist one", which, in her description sounds
distinctly like the old-fashioned treatment of the anti-gay passages: "The foundational
premise is the essential validity and goodness of the biblical tradition as Word of
God, which cannot be dismissed under any circumstance." If there seems to be
oppression, she says, this group of women assume that "the mistake lies with the
interpreter and the interpretive tradition, not with the text." Osiek credits this group
with particularly careful and critical exegesis, often working with specific passages,
countering them with other passages, to "demonstrate... that, contrary to conclusions
reached by a supervicial reading of the texts, the Bible may not be condemning
women to an inferior position." (13)
Osiek's third alternative is a "revisionist hermeneutic", which holds that the
"patriarchal mold in which the Jewish and Christian traditions have been cast is
historically but not theologically determined," so the alternative options are to
research history, read between the lines of scripture, and explain the chauvinist-
12 Mary E. Hunt, "A Three-Dimensional Life: Being Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual In/Out/ 'Beyond", unpublished address given at the February 15, 1992
National Interseminary Conference of Gay/Lesbian and Bisexual Seminarians, Yale
Divinity School, 11.
13 Carolyn Osiek, "The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical
Alternatives", in Ada Yarbro Collins, ed., Feminist Perspectives on Biblical
Scholarship, (Atlanta, Scholar's Press, 1985), 99.
misogynist texts with exegetical method and interpretation of cultural context. Some
biblical work done today by supporters of the purple community is quite similar to
this in tone: Mary Rose d'Angelo's research on women partners in the New
Testament argues that Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Euodia and Syntyche, Martha and
Mary were "pairs" sharing their lives in Christian mission in relationships that were
parallel to those of husband and wife missioners, or to those of Paul and his
companions." While d'Angelou does not find any evidence about erotic practice,
neither does she totally rule it out. (14)
Bernadette Brooten, reviewing Paul on women, presented an overview of
Greek and Roman attitudes toward sexual love relations between women, specifically
stating that she had not discussed "lesbian hi story... [but] sources that attest to male
attitudes toward, and male fantasies about, lesbians." She suggests, however, that the
"increasing preoccupation with sexual relations between women in the Roman period
could indicate that lesbians were living more openly and were perceived as a greater
Osiek's fourth alternative is "sublimationalist", in which she includes new
emphases on Christ-Sophia and feminine symbolism for the Holy Spirit, and which
she describes as close to "romantic feminism", "mystical", and "close to one type of
Jungianism." She believes its chief weaknesses are its tendencies toward dogmatism
on the question of female and male social roles." (16) While this approach, at first,
may seem far from what the purple church has done, it echoes for me the tendency,
14 Mary Rose d'Angelou, "Women Partners in the New Testament", in
Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, no. 6, 1990, 85.
15 Bernadette Brooten, "Paul's Views on the Nature of Women and
Female Homoeroticism", in Immaculate and Powerful (citation to be checked), 79.
16 0siek, ibid., 102.
among our community, for some to mystify the church, despairing of a possibility of
integrating their theology/liturgy/piety and the reality of their lives, disengaging from
social activism utterly; and I would categorize the closeted, liturgically impeccable
Anglo-Catholics who glance knowingly at each other just after the anthem as solving
the dilemma in this fashion. I am sure there are Protestant varieties of the species as
Osiek's fifth alternative, and the one urged in this chapter, is a feminist
liberation hermeneutics. She specifically credits Letty Russell, Rosemary Radford
Reuther, and Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza, for laying the groundwork of this
approach; although as I read her, Schssler Fiorenza sees Russell and Reuther as
failing "to explore sufficiently the function of the Bible in the oppression of the poor
or of women." (17) Osiek sees the crux of liberation theology as a "radical
reinterpretation of biblical eschatology;" (18) I think I just see it as an alternative,
legitimate reading of biblical eschatology. She notes the power of Schssler Fiorenza' s
hermeneutics, and it is to that model that we now turn.
Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza 's four levels of feminist criticism
Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza has worked out a multidimensional model of
feminist criticism in a number of places. In its simplest statement, she named four
basic levels, and it seems to me that each one is applicable for purple liberation
First, she recommends a " feminist critical hermeneutics of suspicion ."
claiming that we should place a "warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be
17 Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological
Reconstruction of Christian Origins, (New York, Crossroad, 1990 ), 15.
18 Osiek, Ibid., 103.
dangerous to your health and survival." (19) For purple liberation, a hermeneutics of
suspicion would lead us to remember always, not only what she notes, that "Without
question, the Bible is a male book," (20) but also, the purple liberation position
would hold, it is a heterosexist book. We must not forget the connection between
heterosexism and misogyny, as Beverly Harrison reminds us. In this sense, the
wonder is that there are only six explicitly anti-gay/lesbian passages in the bible. In
this sense, as well, we need to be suspicious of the pervasive assumption that the only
right relation is between women and men.
Schssler Fiorenza's second level calls for " feminist critical evaluation" of the
text , rather than interpretation and correlation. Thus she stands against the notion of
a "canon within a canon", and also avoids the trap of what Osiek described as the
"loyalist" alternative. She says that in order to find feminist biblical resources, we
"first have to bring to bear the full force of the feminist critique upon biblical texts
and religion." (21)
This leads to the proclamation of liberating texts, which is both radical and
crucial. "We have to develop a hermeneutics of proclamation that undercuts the
authority claims of patriarchal scriptural texts," (22) and she would include in this the
removal from the lectionary of all patriarchal texts. This makes sense unless they will
be subjected to critical reflection in a sermon or meditation; I have winced at reading
some of the texts from the Anglican lectionary in the chapel, because in MCC, if I
19 Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza, "The Will to Choose or Reject:
Continuing our Critical Work", in Letty M. Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the
Bible, (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1985), 130.
21 Ibid., 132.
have chosen to read a text, I accept responsibility for that choice. Imagine then,
suddenly reading bloodthirsty passages in one lesson, and holy submission in the next!
Her third level, a " hermeneutics of remembrance ", "recovers all biblical
traditions and texts through a feminist historical reconstruction." (23). Thus her use
of "subversive memories," the retelling of the sufferings, struggles and victories of
women in biblical stories. I think of Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror as a landmark
telling of the sufferings. But Schssler Fiorenza goes further with the concept: arguing
that since androcentricity masks the presence of women, we can assume that they
were present unless proven otherwise, she then reads women back into the history.
Joanna Dewey brings the women back in her oral retelling of the gospel of Mark as
told by a woman story-teller.
For the purple community, this can be done as well. The conversion of the
Ethiopian eunuch, according to John McNeill, is a sign that sexual minorities were at
the heart of the early church. Brooten and d'Angelou's work falls into this fourth
principle. The earliest Christians, we can argue, were not, inherently, against sexual
minorities. We can remember Ruth and Naomi's compassion for each other, David's
love for Jonathan, and Saul's for David. A reading of Chronicles, particularly those
sections where it parallels Kings, leads me to the suspicion that the chronicler was
gay. What he cannot bear to leave out is a cast of minor characters, mostly musicians:
the list of who was standing where, wearing what, playing which instruments, in the
festivals. My gut says, "this is a gay man writing about his friends."
Schssler Fiorenza' s fourth level is the hermeneutic of creative ritualization
and actualization, which "seeks to retell biblical stories from a feminist perspective, to
23 Ibid., 133.
reformulate biblical visions and injunctions in the perspective of the discipleship of
equals, and to create narrative amplifications of the feminist remnants that have
survived in the biblical texts." (24)
This method leaves us an open vista. In a bible study group in Philadelphia
in 1989-1990, we did a series on "the bible through purple lenses," freely retelling
stories with amplifications and the broadest possible assumptions that we were
missing our sisters and brothers in the texts. Joseph Gilbert has preached, effectively,
on the healing of the centurion's "boy" (pais in Matthew, doulos in Luke). The
overwhelming translation of both pais and doulos in the Christian scriptures (25) is
"servant", not "child" or "son". Given the Greco-Roman permissiveness toward
pederasty, argues Gilbert, we may well be seeing a young manservant who travelled
with the centurion as a sexual companion. This explains both the centurion's concern
and his sense of the particular inappropriateness of a Jewish Jesus coming to his
house. And suppose that Jesus, knowing who (and what relationship) he is dealing
with, heals the young man. This is an image of liberation, an image of blessing.
McNeill, as mentioned above, begins with the Ethiopian eunuch; my own preference
is to see the household of Mary/Martha/Lazarus as a household of lesbian women
with a gay brother at home. Why isn't Lazarus off married? I follow Dorothy Sayres'
image of Lazarus as depressive before the raising. Then I celebrate the image of
Jesus calling the dead/near dead Lazarus into life: "Come out!" — the wonderful
translation of the New Jerusalem Bible and the New RSV, which puns on our own
community reality in a way that makes deep resonances available. How many of us
find that it is God at the call to come out into life?
24 Ibid., 135.
25 From Greek to the RSV and NRSV.
We can also argue, fully in the context of Ruach purple liberation theology,
that the promise as understood by the Johannine community that the Spirit would
lead them into those truths for which they were not yet ready. That was a sense of the
promise of Jesus as understood by an exciting Christian community whose voice we
hear in the gospels.
We have seen the beginnings of "scripture" in the sharing of the stories of
encounter with God among the community; we have recognized the inherent sexism
and heterosexism in the formation and selection of the stories, of the texts as we have
them today. We wrestled some with the notion that scripture was not "a fax message
from God," that it had contextuality and symbolism.
We looked at the gaybashing passages as indicators of a need for a liberation
reading, and 1 suggested that the recognition that these are texts of prejudice is itself
a gift of the Spirit, and that, in line with the prophets, we are called to challenge
them. We then turned, at the end of the chapter, to a question of what resources we
have available to us for building a purple hermeneutics, and looked first at Carolyn
Osiek's spectrum of possible responses to the bible, and then at Elisabeth Schssler
Fiorenza's work for a model and an example.
Questions for discussion:
1 . Where would you have put yourself on the spectrum of approaches to biblical
material before reading this? (Rejectionist, loyalist, revisionist,
2. And where would you put yourself now?
3. In small groups, think of a "scriptural" story with a purple character in it.
Celebrate it with others: tell it, or act it out, or write a letter to your
PROPHECY AND ESTABLISHMENT:
RUACH AND LIBERATION IN THE FIRST POST-RESURRECTION
We continue looking at particular questions in this section, questions which
also expand on the general thesis statement. I have proposed that a Ruach liberation
theology is true to the experience of the early church, and it is time to look in some
detail at that connection, realizing that our sources are limited. Discussing Ruach,
liberation and church also reminds me of the tension which exists in the church
between prophecy and establishment, between the prophetic call to do justice and
the inclination to claim that God supports the existing structure. In this chapter, we
will look at a modern example of the leavening which the Spirit brings in the church,
from Ernesto Cardenal's Gospel in Solentiname, and then back at the descriptive
material which we can find, or reconstruct, about the first post-resurrection
generations of the church. I will be arguing that the experience of the Spirit was
normative in the church at that point, that Christians of the first generations were
more radical than we are today, that Paul attempted to squash and contain the free-
wheeling, radical, ecstatic Christianity experienced in Corinth. Finally, I suggest that
we can see ongoing points of tension in the church between those individuals who
claim the Spirit as authority, and those who claim the hierarchical, structural power of
the religious establishment as authority, looking at the Montanists as an example of a
prophetic, ecstatic group who were condemned by the self-defined orthodox church
around the turn of the third century.
Tension between structure and prophecy:
In a class on the prophets, we acted out the conflict scene between Amos
and the "official" religious leaders at the sanctuary at Bethel. Amaziah, the priest of
the king at Bethel, tries to run Amos out of town: "O seer, go, flee away to the land
of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at
Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary." (7:12) This is but one snapshot of the history
of tension between establishment religion and the free, leavening, challenging
prophetic movement from the margins. The writings of III Isaiah come from a
community which saw itself as cut off from cultic power after the shake-ups
following the return from exile.
This tension was also present in Jesus' challenge to established religion in
his day, as dominated by the temple and the cultic system; Ched Myers (1) and John
Crossan (2) draw a picture of Jesus as operating in a way to subvert that system, as
mounting an increasingly clear attack on it. The tension reverberates in the
controversy stories among the disciples: the disciples are painted as advancing their
own agendas, which almost always include getting Jesus to be a little more
respectable (send away the crowd, don't talk to that woman or beggar, save me an
important place in your kingdom), and which are opposed to Jesus' persistent
mission to and among the marginalized.
Again, the tension surfaces in the arguments over who would be in charge
of the post-resurrection communites, and over the relative status of the various
groups, indicating a tendency to set up shop, to institutionalize, to begin to seek
1 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's
Story of Jesus. (Mary knoll: Orbis, 1991).
2 John Dominic Crossan, The HistoricalJesus: The Life of a
Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. (San Francisco, Harper, 1991).
more predictable order in the way the community would function. As Antoinette
Wire sees it, the conflict between Paul and the Corinthians was an example par-
excellence of the strain between Paul's ideas of how Christian communities should
run, and the freer, more ecstatic style of the Corinthian women prophets. In the
Pastoral letters, this tension between prophecy and establishment also surfaces: we
are reading the establishment side, and we see the writers arguing for prescriptive
household codes: wives, obey your husbands.
The tension is present today in MCC, as we decide whether to be like
everyone else, "only gay", or to celebrate our position on the edge and work toward
justice for all. A white MCC clergyman (race and gender mattter here, I believe),
explained to me that the reason MCC Philadelphia didn't grow was that we insisted
on describing ourselves as a church for the whole community of sexual minority
persons. "You've got to stop talking about transsexuals and transgendered persons
there. Just say 'gay'."
One reason I wanted to begin by looking at this tension is that I believe I
see a trend in the early church toward the calcification of the church, the boxing-in
of the Spirit, the demand for submission of the Spirit to the interest in good order,
the containment of the Spirit implied in identifying her with the hierarchy or the
sacraments, both well-defined by the power elite, who also controlled access to
hierarchy and sacrament. And I also believe that we see — even in our own faith
community experience - not only that perennial temptation, but also the zest and
the power of Ruach that we know when we are out on the margins.
Cardenal's description of the connection between Ruach and radicality:
Ernesto Cardenal, introducing The Gospel in Solentiname, explains that his
book contains Sunday dialogues on the Gospel shared in a base community in
Solentiname on Lake Nicaragua:
The Commentaries of the campesinos are usually of greater profundity
than that of many theologians, but of a simplicity like that of the Gospel
itself. This is not surprising: The Gospel, or "Good News" (to the poor),
was written for them, and by people like them...
The true author is the Spirit that has inspired these commentaries (the
Solentiname campesinos know very well that it is the Spirit who makes
them speak) and that it was the Spirit who inspired the Gospels. The Holy
Spirit, who is the Spirit of God instilled in the community, and whom
Oscar would call the spirit of community unity, and Alejandro the spirit of
service to others, and Elvis the spirit of the society of the future, and
Felipe the spirit of proletarian struggle, and Julio the spirit of equality and
the community of wealth, and Laureano the spirit of the Revolution, and
Rebeca the spirit of Love. (3)
In the commentary on John 14:15-31, Cardenal introduces the notion that
the Spirit was the
"...Spirit of Yahweh, which is the same as saying the spirit of justice and
liberation. He's the one who spoke through the prophets proclaiming the
RAUL: "The spirit of God or the spirit of justice is the spirit of struggle
that is present in the people. It's class consciousness. It's also the spirit of
Jesus Christ. And the worldly ones, that is, the oppressors, don't see him
or know him."
"If it's the spirit of truth it's the spirit of justice. Because exploitation and
deception are the same thing."
GUSTAVO, the Columbian: "I think that truth, the whole truth, is always
revolutionary. Then the spirit of truth is something that moves things to
"The stuff in this gospel seems to me very inspiring; for it gives the
assurance that when the physical presence of Christ is not in the midst of
his followers, that is, the oppressed, they are always left with the truth,
which is on their side. . . " (4)
This is liberation theology; this is reflection in a community of praxis, and it
claims for those on the margins, the poorest of the poor, the right and duty to speak
of justice and struggle as Ruach leads them to do. Of course, conservative, well-fed
3 Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, (Maryknoll, Orbis, 1984
), tr. Donald d. Walsh, Vol.4, vii, ix-x.
4 Ibid., 158-159.
politicians both in Latin America and in our country do not want this speech to be
heard, and so we see the alliances forming between (predominantly) white,
(predominantly) middle-class Christians and the religious right, and we also see
action proposals which include, among other things, a stated right-wing attempt to
undermine liberation theology in Latin America by mounting significant Protestant
and pentecostal mission efforts.
Bultmann: Ruach as an eschatological gift.
According to Rudolf Bultmann, (5) for pre-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity,
"bestowal of the spirit is an eschatological gift"; a dynamistic concept whereby the
Spirit is poured out on a person is the usual concept : "the general conviction is that
all Christians have received the Spirit in baptism"; there is a sense that "one may
possess the Spirit in varying quantity or intensity"; and the Spirit "also manifests its
activity at particular moments". The common Christian conviction, according to
Bultmann, is that the Spirit's life-giving power is already at work in them, and that
the gifts of the spirit "are experienced above all in the service of worship. "
This summary is worth savoring. Bultmann is describing his perception of
pre-Pauline Christianity, of the earliest generations, and doing so without any
advocacy for the image of Ruach-fiWed churches which develops. He makes the case
for me that the churches of the first generations — at least the Hellenistic ones -
were churches marked by a perception of the presence of the Spirit, and an
assumption and expectation of the presence of the Spirit among them, and further,
that they saw this as normative.
Now, realizing that I move to literature from a later period than Paul, I
want to look at Luke-Acts, still establishing the argument for the descriptive
5 Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, (Vol. 7 J, (New York,
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), 155-161.
statement that the earliest generations saw the experience of Ruach as normative.
Luke also makes the connection with liberation for us.
Luke and Ruach (as pneuma):a mixed picture
When I look at Luke — with Joanna Dewey whispering in my ear — I see the
assumption, in both Luke and Acts, that the Spirit is normative in forming, leading,
empowering the community. It is from Luke's work that I draw two connective
images between Pneuma and liberation, images which I believe are so driving in his
concept, so critical to his rhetorical construct, that he places them in the "opening
sermons" of each book. In the fourth chapter of Luke, Jesus is pictured as returning
to Galilee "filled with the power of Pneuma" (4:14) soon after the baptism (at which
the Holy Pneuma descended upon him in bodily form like a dove (3:22)) and the
temptation in the wilderness (to which he was led by Pneuma (4:1)). Coming to
Nazareth, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read the
"scroll of the prophet Isiaiah". What Luke gives us here is a merged text of Isaiah
61:1-2 and 58:6:
The Spirit of God is upon me,
and has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of God's favor. (4:18-19)
Now what I have rendered inclusive as "the Spirit of God", is actually "the
Spirit of the Lord", and this, pneuma kuriou, is the Septuagint translation for Ruach
YHWH, the strong Spirit we have danced with throughout this thesis. Ruach,
anointing Jesus, filling him, does so that he may proclaim and inaugurate the
inbreaking of the commonwealth of God, and this is described with a full liberation
motif. Sharon Ringe connects the year of God's favor back through its Isaiah 61:2
source to the Jubilee Year concept of Leviticus 25, which describes an idealized
fiftieth year as a year in which the land and people rested from work, in which
people returned to their ancestral property, in which debts were forgiven, property
lost was returned to its ancestral holder, and slaves and their children were freed.
We need not and should not romanticize this Jubilee notion: if one has acquired a
good number of slaves and a good amount of land, this is not good news. But to the
peasants, struggling under double taxation to hold what means of subsistence they
had, it is very good news indeed. This inaugural sermon, and Luke's use of the
beatitudes, are images of justice with strong reversals. Not only are the poor
empowered, but the rich lose their privileged place. Ringe says that the Jubilee
concept informs the synoptic image of Jesus. (6)
The second key image of Ruach connecting to roots in Hebrew scriptures
comes at the beginning of Acts, in a "sermon" which Peter explains what is
happening, and "quotes" from Joel, part of which I reproduce here:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and the young shall see visions,
and the old shall dream dreams;
and in those days I will pour out my Spirit
on my servants, both men and women; and they shall prophesy...
This is not just an eschatological declaration, a declaration of the dawn of a
new era, it also images Ruach as freely given to all, even to servants. It is a key
theme in Acts that Ruach guides the church, and is poured out on all in the church.
Fifty-seven of the seventy occurrences of pneuma in Acts refer to the Spirit or the
Holy Spirit as given to people or as directing the people of the church.
6 Sharon H. Ringe, Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for
Ethics and Christology, (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1985)
But this also brings us to the mixed message about the Spirit in Acts: the
church as Luke describes it, after a brief period of communitarian living, is strangely
not a leavening agent on the margins. Whether this is apologetic or wishful thinking
on Luke's part, we need to remember the dedications which title both of the books,
explaining to "Theophilus" that the purpose of the writing is for his understanding
about those things in which he has been instructed. If one theme of Luke Acts is the
power of the Spirit, a second theme is that the church isn't any real threat to Rome
and to political power. Luke quotes and cites liberation writings from the Hebrew
scriptures, but his apologia to "Theophilus" is almost always couched in terms of the
respectability of the Christian community. However we deal with that dual message
in Luke, certainly Ruach is present, and is perceived as present.
Antoinette Wire, in The Corinthian Women Prophets, a book that we will
look at in more depth in a minute, also assumes that ecstatic experiences of Ruach
were normal in Corinth, and that that is the reason why Paul needed, first, to honor
and acknowledge them, and then by arguments, to try to bridle the women into a
less independent ambience. Therefore, when we describe ourselves as a church
filled with the Spirit, we are approaching what I believe was everyday expectation
among the Hellenistic Christians of the first generations.
A more radically communitarian life-style
The second assertion I make, tying the presence of the Spirit to liberation,
is that the earliest Christians were more radical, more communitarian, more
identified with the poor, more willing to take risks for the gospel as they understood
it, than we tend to be.
We read in Acts that the earliest Christians lived together, sharing gifts in
common. Sharon Ringe emphasizes the journey motif for Jesus (7), and John
Dominic Crossan (8) emphasizes the economic marginality of early Jewish-
Christians. Gerd Thiessen writes of the itinerant nature of some of the earliest
missionaries. Antoinette Clark Wire does a careful analysis of changes in social
location following conversion, and concludes that for Paul, conversion to
Christianity involved losing status, "cutting off his promising career among the
Pharisees without providing him the kind of wisdom that can be a solid power-base
in the Greek world." In addition, among the Corinthians, his honor "is bankrupt."
But for slaves and women converts, Wire argues, the baptismal formula
reproduced in Galatians 3:28 indicates a new community in which Jew/Greek,
slave/free, male/female power dynamics were put aside, and therefore, for these,
conversion to Christianity meant an improvement in status. This was particularly
the case for women as they moved out of marriages and/or did not remarry. Since
the Corinthian church valued prophecy and spiritual gifts, as women and slaves were
recognized as having "wisdom" and "power", their status was also enhanced. It is not
our experience today that baptism conveys a significantlly different social status,
even in the church. That the ecclesial community could, within itself, accord
different social location than was experienced by many of its members in the world,
is itself, radical.
7 Sharon H. Ringe, "Luke 9:28-36: The beginning of an exodus", in
Semeia 28, (Chico, CA, Scholar's Press, 1983), 83-99.
8 Crossan, op. cit.
9 Antoinette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A
reconstruction through Paul's Rhetoric, (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1990), 62-70.
Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza describes the Jesus movement as liberating
women, the poor, and the marginal, and argues that this is the very nature of the
basilea of God. (10) In the first generations, women, both as patrons of house
churches and as missionaries, held power in the church, a power which they often
had not previously known. She says, "As an alternative association which accorded
women- and slave-initiates equal status and roles, the Christian missionary
movement was a conflict movement which stood in tension with the institutions of
slavery and the patriarchal family." (11)
For Bultmann, the message of the church and of Jesus was that "Jesus had
been, and in the church's preaching continued to be, the proclaimer of the radical
demand of God. " (12) So what we see is a church which, in its various communities,
developed a significant challenge to the prevailing values and norms of the culture,
whose members chose to live in a community solidarity which shifted their social
location. Within the basilea, the in-breaking realm of God, led by the Spirit, we see
a social change in status for many which resembles the goals of liberation much
more than it represents the actuality of North American mainstream churches today.
Paul against the Corinthian women: do it my way, please...
Antoinette Wire, using rhetorical biblical criticism, examines Paul's
arguments in the letters to the Corinthians, and reaches a number of conclusions
about the personalities and situation in Corinth. As an example of the method of
reasoning, consider what you might learn from a letter from a District Coordinator
to a local church in which the argument was put forward, forcefully, that it was
10 Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist
Reconstruction of Christian Origins, 140-151.
11 Ibid., 216.
12 Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 7, 34.
important to pay tithes to the district. One could probably conclude that the local
congregation was not doing so regularly, or the letter would have not been written.
Given an analysis of this sort — and significantly more sophisticated — Wire
concludes that in the Corinthian church there were women prophets, many of whom
had withdrawn from sexual relations and were freer, who could not imagine that it
would be right if the Spirit were wasted and not exercised in community, who
honored themselves as those who had put on Christ and equality, who worshipped
together with ecstasy, often speaking at once, not necessarily waiting for others to
finish, who may have been offending others and bringing in more members from the
lower classes, who claimed "direct access to resurrected life in Christ through God's
spirit," and assume that God created a new humanity in Christ, who, above all, were
"confident in the Spirit," sure that they could understand God from within and
discern God's gifts, who knew Christ as a life-bringer.(13)
Their claim to spiritual gifts and leadership was a major problem for Paul.
Like the Corinthian women, he upheld the importance of the Spirit in theory, and
claimed spiritual giftedness with joy in his own life. But, confronted with a group
with whom he had worked who were now, in his judgement, going awry, he was
horrified. Bultmann and Wire both hint at the parallelism between some of the
emphases of the Corinthian prophets and gnosticism. Stephen Patterson wonders if
the capacity of the words of Jesus in the sayings gospels, like Thomas and Q, to be
read as gnostic, was one of the reasons they were suppressed, and in Q's case,
"embedded into a narrative context. .. [and] 'protected' from... gnostic interpretation."
13 Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets, 181-187.
14 John Kloppenborg, Marvin Meyer, Stephen Patterson, and Michael
Steinhauser, Q Thomas Reader, (Sonoma.,C A, Polebridge Press, 1990), 104.
If this is so, then Elaine Pagels gets at the reason why Paul needs to stifle
this outbreak of a sense of power among the women:
Like Baptists, Quakers, and many others, the gnostic is convinced that
whoever receives the spirit communicates directly with the divine... Marcus
[a student of Valentinus] expects... that everyone he initiates into gnosis
will also recieve such experiences. In the initiation ritual, after invoking
the spirit, he commands the candidate to speak in prophecy, to
demonstrate that the person has received direct contact with the
No wonder that Irenaeus and the church fathers were horrified by the
gnostics; no wonder that Paul needed to stop the women. Is it not possible that
Apollos had taught this sort of baptism, and had urged people to learn wisdom?
Paul felt compelled to undo this form of freedom in the Spirit — without much
success, as we find as we read the rest of the Corinthian correspondence and the
Epistle of Clement. But using every argument he could muster, Paul attacked the
wisdom of the Corinthians, and urged them to accept him in a special position of
authority, arguing from what other churches of his were doing. He even urged the
women back into more traditional roles of marriage for the good of the community
(and for the sake of the men). According to Wire's estimate, Paul attempted to
regain control over the Corinthian women prophets and the Corinthian church,
bringing them back to a state of obedience to his authority and to his party within
the church; he did this by devaluing the women, their spiritual experience, and their
In this attempt by Paul to squash and contain the ecstatic version of
Christianity in Corinth, I think we see an instance of the temptation/tendency of
leaders within the church structure — however nascent that structure — to attempt to
codify their image of the church. In the tension between prophecy and
15 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, (New York, Random House,
establishment, it seems to me that Ruach is most usually found on the margins of the
church establishment, leavening the church and bringing new life, and that the
impulse of those in power in the church structure is to try to overrule and control
that new life. Over time, for instance, the church restricted access to power to the
"apostles" and their successors, thereby restricting access to authority and power in
the church to a narrow group who became, ultimately, "bishops."
With gnosticism, in contrast, a spiritual near-anarchy can evolve, as each
initiate has new visions. Paul must have looked at it the way conservative Christians
look at New Age. The Gospel of Thomas and the Q tradition point to a much more
mystical, sayings-centered, wisdom-centered tradition. Both Elisabeth Schssler
Fiorenza and Susan Cady et al argue for an extension of the Jewish wisdom
tradition, such that Jesus becomes seen as the prophet-messenger of Sophia, the
proclaimer of the Sophia-God. The prologue to the fourth gospel coopts this by
appropriating wisdom as logos, replacing "wisdom" with "word". So also, Paul
coopted wisdom when he named Christ as the wisdom of God and the power of
God, and then redefined wisdom as his interpretation of wisdom.
Another challenge from the margins: the discrediting of the Montanists
In Asia Minor, in Phrygia, in the last half of the second century, a group of
believers in a town called Ardabu received an outpouring of the Spirit speaking
through a prophet named Montanus, who soon recognized two women, Maximilla
and Priscilla (or Prisca) as prophets and leaders as well. The claim of this group to
the authority derived from the Spirit, as opposed to the authority claimed by the
growing church hierarchy, set them in direct conflict. Many of the Montanist's
tenets could not be called liberative, particularly their rigorous asceticism. But in
the presence of women in leadership roles, and their openness to new images, were
leavening. Their writings have been recovered, like the position of the Corinthian
women, from the extant writings of the church fathers against the Montanists. In one
of Priscilla's oracles, "Under the appearance of a woman, clothed in a shining robe,
Christ came to me, and revealed to me that this place is sacred and that it is here
that Jerusalem will descend from heaven." (16) Again, we have a movement which
arises from the margins, which is prophetic and bears seeds of leavening liberation,
connected to the Spirit, attacked by those who hold power at the center of the
church. And again, we have an instance of recurring inspiration by Ruach within the
church. But by the time of the Montanists, the church has calcified to the extent
that it resists the Spirit on the margins.
We can associate Ruach and liberation as experienced in the first
generations of the early church; we can document some elements of the church as
Ruach- fiMzd, and the church as radically communitarian in its social organization
and outreach. There are shades and varieties of each of these on a continuum. We
may be seeing the first limiting and constraining act in the first letter of Paul to the
Corinthians, in which he attempts to rein in the free-wheeling, /?wtfc/?-filled women
prophets and to bring the church back to accountability to his own authority.
But we oversimplify the situation if we always see the issue as good-guys
(claiming the Spirit) vs. bad-guys (those in the structural church leadership). I
remember hearing that a former parishioner had been to A Course in Miracles, and
was now attempting to set up shop as the congregation's spiritual guru, and I was
tempted to write a very Pauline letter to her. We are dealing with a tension
between prophecy and establishment, just as the church has through all of its history.
A crucial test, it seems to me, is to look at the fruits. What is the result, in our lives,
of the experience that we claim? Does it tend to lead us to work for justice, to grow
16 quoted in Elaine C. Huber, Women and the Authority of
Inspi ration, (Lanham, University Press, 1985), 222.
in mutuality and right-relation with each other and with creation? Where it does, it
witnesses to Ruach, who moves among us now as in the days of the early church.
Questions for discussion:
1. Where do we see the Spirit active today, in the life of our community and
2. Given the answer that we selected to the first question, what is it that leads us to
believe that it is the Spirit's activity that we are seeing?
3. Reread Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapters 10-14. Then, making sure
that you have some people who can represent the Corinthian prophets, and some
people who will be "friends of Paul", imagine that you are having a congregational
meeting. The motion on the floor, sponsored by the "friends of Paul", is: "A worship
committee will be created, and, together with the pastor, will plan and execute all
services. Since services have been getting out of hand, no one will speak in services
of public worship if they have not been selected by the worship committee, and no
one will use any prayers which have not been pre-authorized by the worship
DANCING WITH RUACH:
RUACH, LIBERATION, AND MCC TODAY
This final chapter looks at MCC today, and where we may move in the
future, looks at the mission of our gathered community, gathered by Ruach and
charged with liberation. It represents the expansion of the third prong of the thesis
statement, that a Ruach liberation theology is useful and appropriate for MCC today.
At least that was the plan. But while driving in New Hampshire, I found myself
having a sort of conversation...
Oh, dear God, it's done; it felt, at times, like a marathon, and I think I hit the
wall about a month ago.
Well, all I have to do is wrap it up, and do a summary chapter; there was a
point when I wanted to rewrite the introduction and chuck this part entirely.
So when are we going to dance?
Yes, dance. Wiggle your feet, you know. Tap your toes. Try a two-step. Here
you are, ending a thesis about my dance, and you've barely done it. Surely you're not
going to plod off into the sunset without dancing with me. Think ofJimmie Irving in
MCC Los Angeles, and how he says that sometimes when I get hold of you, you just
have to dance.
Besides, you've gone the whole way and not written about things you really
wanted to say, like the eschatological freighter, or the backflush of redemption.
Yes, well, they didn't fit in the outline.
Outline, schmoutline. This is a dance, and I thought you had gotten over being
respectable. You were mired in it, before I brought you out, almost seven years ago.
That was one of my gifts to you. As soon as you acknowledged that you were a dyke,
you were rescued from respectability for ever. So dance on the edge. Weep on the edge.
Laugh on the edge, tell funny stories on the edge, reach out across the edge, touch
friends on the edge - but you '11 never make it trying to sit in the center, honey, because
I'm not there very often.
I never thought I'd be dealing with a God who sounded like an earthy old
waitress in a diner.
So? Can we get on with it? If you don't know how to start, you just clear your
throat one or two times and then say something stuffy like - oh well like — "as we
consider the mission of the church as called by the Spirit, we may wish to examine
several areas briefly, examples of a dialogue with a Ruach liberation theology. " Is that
stuffy enough? You could give this miscellany a fancy name, like "some items which are
a prologomena for future reflection. " Oh, I want to throw up. Dearest, can we dance?
Can we romp through just one chapter? This is your last chance.
That 's it. . . I sort of like Turkey in the Straw for starters. . .
Ready? Do, do, dee-dee-dee-dee-DEE... I'll check back and try to keep you
Where do we go with a Ruach liberation theology today? What follows is a
look at a number of instances where a liberation theology arising from the
experience of our community will have slightly different emphases than traditional
Western Christian theology. While not fully developed, these could be considered
as a -- um ~ as a (harumph) prologomena for future reflection. Very briefly, in this
chapter, I will look at the goodness of creation, the eschatological freighter, Jesus as
radical, decentralization of the cross, the backflush of redemption, a celebration of
connection and of embodiedness, the challenge and risk of relationships, the
question of mission as a hitchhiker, and getting used to life on the edge.
The goodness of creation:
Contrary to the standard sin-centered theologies with a rejection of creation
- and sometimes, it even seems, of joy, a Ruach liberation theology will be marked
by a deep love for, and pleasure in, the goodness of creation. In this, I follow
Matthew Fox's lead. It will recognize that this is-ness in which we are emmeshed, in
which we dance and weep, with each other, with earth and sky creatures, with the
sea and the stars, is permeated with, filled with, sacrament of God. This
appreciation of creation also prepares us to take our earth more seriously, to care
for it and preserve it, moving from the cavalier overlordship which has been too
The eschatological freighter:
In our lives and in our scriptures, as Christians, we describe the coming of
God among us as having happened, happening, and still to happen. The eyes of the
folks in MCC in the Mountains glaze over when I slip and use see-IVe-been-to-
seminary phrases like "semi-realizing eschatology". But we need a way to talk about
eschatology, this in-breaking of the commonwealth of Ruach among us.
When we lived on the St. Clair River in Michigan, Kate sat on the dock one
day the summer she was eleven, and ulew her trumpet at every freighter that went
by, and one captain saluted back. She sent him a letter and brownies, and a
friendship grew. Over time we exchanged visits, and Louis and his wife Reenie were
a gift in Kate's life. Like other St. Clair River freighter buffs, we would run out to
wave at our favorite captain, and at others we came to know through him. If he
came by in the daytime, we fired the little racing cannon, and Kate and Martha
would blast out a salute on their french horn and trumpet, and Dick and Dorothy
and I would wave.
The biggest Great Lakes freighters are humoungous thousand-foot things,
with the pilothouse at the back. They are so big that we even wondered which end
to salute. We would run out, get ready, salute the bow, and wait, wait, wait, for the
rest of the boat to come up or down-river to us. Then the captain would come out
on the bridge extension and call out with the bullhorn, and then he would blow his
salute, as the stern passed by.
When I think of the here-but-not-all-here-yet quality of the commonwealth
of God among us, I think of the freighter coming up-river in the dusk, its bow
already past our dock, its stern still several houses down. I also think that the
tension ~ knowing the Sacred One as entering our lives but not with the dramatic,
decisive clarity we would like ~ represents reality as we are likely to know it, not
because God is stuck in a traffic jam, but because dramatic, triumphant finishes ~
John Wayne and the cavalry whooshing down from the hills ~ are our invention, not
the way of Ruach.
Jesus as a radical
It is so obvious, once we are willing to look — Jesus executed as a common
criminal, Jesus continually being called by the religious experts for non-conformity,
Jesus hanging around with a rag-tag lot of outcasts, Jesus saying outrageous things
about giving away cloaks and living like bag-persons. It was not at all obvious to me
as I grew up with the "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," always, of course ; blonde,
always, of course (except for Good Friday) in a robe which was so radiantly,
spotlessly white that it looked like a refugee from a TV ad for Tide. The "gentle
Jesus" we grew up with was put there by collaborators with the power structure, who
wanted most of us also to be gentle, meek and mild. But look! A zest-filled,
compelling, vibrant, daring, challenging, prophetic, dangerous Jesus — a Jesus whom
the power brokers had to get rid of — strides out of the pages of Mark and still
confronts the myths and principalities of established power. We need to be talking
about this Jesus - lots.
Decentralization of the cross
When I get really radical, I talk about the "Stations of the Chariot", which
tends to wake people up, and then I ask if there could have been salvation if Jesus
had died in a chariot accident instead of on the cross. Since we're all trained to
knee-jerk responses, we say "Of course," and then we begin to focus where I think
we must, on the salvation breaking forth in the Hfe of Jesus, in the calling into the
community of the friends of God, of the calling into saving connection with Ruach
and with each other.
We are here because of the resurrection, because of the gift of Ruach,
because of the life which we find together. Matthew Fox points out that the cross
was a horrid Persian invention, used by the Roman Empire, and that it is the empty
tomb that was the invention of God. But we are cross-centered, not only in our
imagery but in our hymnody; we overemhasize the sacrificial aspect in the
eucharist. Feminists and other abuse survivors are beginning to discuss seriously the
connection between a "gospel" which oversimplifies into divine child abuse and the
hell in our households and streets. It is time to decentralize the cross in our lives
together as the community of the Risen Christ.
The backflush of redemption
Where, then, is redemption? What do we DO with the nightmare of AIDS,
the horror of starving children across the world, the screams of victims of napalm or
childhood sexual abuse? Where is the redemption for the hells of the past?
If we see time as linear, and we lay out a line that goes
then we are left with no way back to that moment.
But if we recognize that the Sacred One encompasses, surrounds, fills all
time, that all time is somehow present to her, then we have the image below...
and we can imagine that a healing moment today can, in the mercy and
grace of God, and in the coinherence, backflush our time, flowing backwards into
the past and changing it. Friends tell me that this touches, in some ways, their own
experiences of healings.
A celebration of connection and embodied-ness
This is the good news for purple people. If we image a great web of
connection, as Noreen Carter does, as a fundamental image for reality, and for the
connectedness of reality, and if we image God as the matrix of that connectedness,
then we are looping back to Carter Heyward's image of her as the One we
encounter in connection, as the sacred and erotic power in that connection. Not
only do I follow Carter on this one, but also on her sense of our need to break away
from the dualism of the Western church fathers, from the spirit/body split.
Celebrating our embodiedness is a celebration of incarnation, a celebration of
creation, a recognition that "what you see is what you get" is, in some cases, a sacred
truth. The combination of celebrating connection and celebrating embodiedness
occurs when I touch you, when you scratch the dog's ears, when a mother nurses her
child, when we embrace and sacramentalize the wonder of our growing commitment
to each other in sacred passion. Not surprisingly, this is the way new lives begin ~
for all three persons involved.
The world wants to take our sexuality and make a MAJOR deal about it. In
one sense, that is right on the mark, and it invites us to celebrate it, to do theology
about it, to incorporate it in the whole of our lives. And we have an advantage in
that, since it has been unacceptable, it is not burdened with all the preconceived
notions and constraints of heterosexuality.
It also gives us a lens through which to look at all relationships and
connections, because we are driven to recognize that the goodness in relationships
neither comes from genital complementarity nor from a civil document called a
marriage license, and certainly not from a disembodied asceticism. The goodness in
relationships — mine with you, ours with our friends or co-workers or parishioners or
bosses or supermarket clerks, ours with people whom we do not know but allow to
starve, ours with the planet ~ that goodness comes from the quality of the
relationship, from the integrity, compassion, justice, and movement involved.
The challenge and risk of relationships:
This section is hard to write, but precisely for that reason it needs to be
written. In relationship, as we are vulnerable with each other, we can and will be
hurt at times, varying degrees of hurt, and varying degrees of frequency. The give
and take of our dance of connectedness needs to provide for this, and for working
through the missteps, for naming problems and forgiving sins. We will grow and
change as we are together. All this is risk. For those of us with backgrounds of hurt,
it can be terrifying. Sometimes our fear is that we will get the disease, or give it, or
have to deal with it, to watch its ravages, in someone we love so much that it will rip
our guts out while it rips out the life of the other.
Many of us are single in our community. For one or another reason — or a
series of publicly-explained "reasons" which may mask fear, we stay single, we do not
risk entering into relationships which may deepen into some of the most significant,
most transforming, most important graces of our lives. Others of us have let our
relationships deaden into habits, gnash our teeth at issues which we choose not to
discuss with our partners, wonder where the zest has gone.
In each case, the challenge is to move — to move into relationship, or to
move into a deeper and more fully-engaged one, one in which we are increasingly
real with each other. It's like learning to ride a bicycle. Finally, we have to wobble
with no other support than our sense of balance. The reward is the connection.
Mission as a hitchhiker:
I believe - firmly -- that Ruach calls us to a missionary stance, that we need
to keep expanding the circle, to advocate connection in Christa/community, to
invite others to join us as we journey together and with God. I believe especially in
this for MCC, because men and women have very few other places to hear good
news for purple people. I have nearly worn out one car as a missionary pastor. But
I don't see this as an imperial mission ("Come into OUR church and learn our ways
and rules"), or even as a "teaching" mission, ("We have the truth, listen up!") I see
it as a connection, a contact, in which, in every case . I will be changed, we will be
changed, as you come among us, as you bring your insights, your gifts, your own
calling and convictions. In many cases it will be your strengths that carry us for the
next part of the journey. So I deliberately speak of mission as a hitchhiker — trying
to suggest that not only will we travel together for a while; while we travel, I will be
blessed not only with your companionship, but with your gifts.
There is a corollary for this in our lives as purple church. Within MCC, the
challenges which give us fits have to do with the risk of growing with each other, the
risk of hearing each others' voices and being transformed ourselves. Whether this is
over issues of spiritual diversity, or the issues raised by feminists, or the call to
grapple with our overweening racism, or the risk of becoming a truly international
Fellowship, or the need to spread our membership base to include older and
younger people, the invitation, in each case - one which comes from Ruach herself,
I believe — is to do mission as hitchhikers; to celebrate all the diversity which others
bring; to see it as exciting and lifegiving, rather than threatening.
Getting used to life on the edge
Fear. Wanting to be safe. Wanting to fit in. Wanting approval. Wanting
to find it is easy. Wanting a Disneyland life, not a real one. For all of us who are
purple, the edge is our home, whether or not we want to believe it. We are
marginalized by society, and we never know when we will pay a price for who we
are, for who and how we love.
The edge, the margins, are also the place where Ruach lives, I believe; they
are the places where new life springs up and the world is leavened. They are holy
places, which call us to learn from our own experience and commit to justice for
others. Like the wilderness, symbolic in the Exodus event of Hebrew scriptures, and
as the site of Jesus' baptism and temptation in the Christian canon, the edge is a
place of deepening, of connecting with utmost Reality; a place for compassionate
care for our fellow travellers; a place for hearing our call and learning to sing our
own truth. As purple people, we not only live on the edge, we may even come to
know that we could not live this fully engaged anyplace else.
The very nature of purple liberation theology, of purple liberation living, is
that we come to see our purpleness as a part of our vocation, of our calling to be a
people; that we begin to celebrate it, in the Spirit, as a call to solidarity with all
oppressed people, recognizing from the start that, on a relative scale, we remain
incredibly privileged. It is a call not to run for security to the center, but to follow
Jesus to the margins of the margins. It is a call to know that the security which the
systems and structures of this world promise is a junk-food security, a crack-cocaine
security, promising and not delivering. The call to be purple is a call to risk
relationships, even with Ruach herself, to risk being radical like Jesus, to join in
transforming our world. It is not just biblical, true to the experience of the early
church, and fitting for us today; as Munro Leaf said of "manners" in a book which
mothers bought for children when I was growing up, it can be FUN!
So come to the dance,
the dance of the spiral,
the healing and whole-making of all that there is,
come be a poet, a prophet, a dreamer.
Boff, Clodovis, Feet-on-the-Ground-Theology, Maryknoll: Orbis. 1987.
(Berryman, Phillip, tr.) [orig. edition 1984]
Brauer, Jerald C, ed., The Westminster Dictionary of Church History.
Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971.
Brown, Joanne Carlson, and Bohn, Carole R., eds., Christianity, Patriarchy,
and Abuse: A Feminist Critique. New York: Pilgrim, 1989.
Brown, Robert McAfee, Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great
Fallacy. Louisville, Westminster, 1988.
Cannon, Katie Geneva, guest ed., Interpretaion for Liberation: Semeia vol.
47. Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1989.
Clark, J. Michael, A Place to Start: Toward an Unapologetic Gay Liberation
Theology. Dallas: Monument, 1989.
Collins, Adela Yarbro, ed. Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship.
Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1985.
Comblin, Jose, The Holy Spirit and Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989.
(Burns, Paul, tr.)
Cone, James H., A Black Theology of Liberation, Second edition.
Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986. [first edition 1970]
Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus: The Life of Mediterranean
Jewish Peasant. San Francisco, Harper, 1991.
Dunn, James D. G., Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and
Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New
Testament. London: SCM Press, 1975.
Fox, Matthew, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality. Santa Fe:
Bear and Company, 1986. [orig. ed. 1983]
, Creation Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
Friedrich, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI,
Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968. (Bromiley, Geoffrey, tr.)
Goetchius, Eugene V.N., and Price, Charles, The Gifts of God. Wilton, CT,
Morehouse Barlow, 1984.
Greeley, Andrew M., Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing. Englewood Cliffs,
Prentice Hall, 1974.
Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation, (15th Anniversary Edition).
Mary knoll: Orbis, 1988. (Inda, Caridad and Eagleson, John, tr.)
Hennelly, Alfred T., ed. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History.
Maryknoll, Orbis. 1990.
Hey ward, Carter, Touching our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love
of God. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
hooks, bell, Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black. Boston: South
End Press, 1989.
Huber, Elaine C, Women and the Authority of Inspiration: A
Reexamination of Two Prophetic Movements from a Contemporary Feminist Perspective.
Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Hunt, Mary E., "A Three-Dimensional Life: Being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,
In/OuUt/Beyond". Unpublished manuscript, Talk given February 15, 1992, at
National Interseminary Conference of Gay/Lesbian and Bisexual Seminarians, Yale
Israel, Martin, Smouldering Fire: The Work of the Holy Spirit. New York:
, Healing as Sacrament: The Sanctification of the World.
Cambridge: Cowley, 1984.
Lewis, C.S., The Weight of Glory and other addresses. Grand Rapids,
Eerdmans, 1965. [First published as "Transposition and other addresses", 1949]
Loulan, Jo Ann, Lesbian Sex. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1984.
, and Thomas, Sherry, The Lesbian Erotic Dance: Butch, Femme,
Androgyny, and Other Rhythms. San Francisco: Spinsters Book Company, 1990
McFague, Sallie, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age.
Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.
Mollenkott, Virginia, Godding: Human Responsibility and the Bible. New
York, Crossroad, 1987.
Mud-Flower Collective, God's Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and
Theological Education. New York: Pilgrim, 1985.
Myers, Ched, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story
of Jesus. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991.
Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack, War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict and
Christian Faith. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990.
Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House- Vintage,
1989. [first edition 1979]
Perry, Troy, with Lucas, Charles, The Lord is my Shepherd and He Knows
I'm Gay. Austin, TX: Liberty Press, 1987. [orig. edition 1972]
, with Swicegood, Thomas, Don't Be Afraid Anymore: The Story of
Reverend Troy Perry and the Metropolitan Community Churches. New York: St.
Pittenger, Norman, The Holy Spirit. Philadelphia: Pilgrim, 1974.
Rahner, Karl, ed., Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum
Mundi. New York: Crossroad, 1989. [orig. ed: 1975]
Richardson, Alan, and Bowden, John, eds., The Westminster Dictionary of
Christian Theology. Philadelphia, Westminster, 1983.
Russell, Letty M., ed. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Philadelphia:
Schiissler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological
Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York, Crossroad, 1990 [original ed. 1983].
, Bread, not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical
Interpretation. Boston: Beacon, 1984.
Segundo, Juan Luis, The Liberation of Theology. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985
[orig. edition 1976] (Drury, John, tr.)
Sobrino, Jon, Spirituality of Liberation: Toward Political Holiness.
Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989. [Barr, Robert, tr., original edition 1985]
Spong, John Shelby, Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. San
Francisco: Harper, 1990. [orig. edition 1988]
Taylor, John V., The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian
Mission. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Uhlein, Gabrielle, Meditations with Hildegard ofBingen. Santa Fe: Bear &
Wilson, Nancy, "WHY I FASTED: LOSING, STANDING, OR
GAINING GROUND, or, MCC AT 21 YEARS: Have We Lost Our Way, or Are
We Just Finding It Again? Burning With Millenial Fever!", unpublished manuscript,
Wire, Antoinette Clark. The Corinthian Women Prophets: A
Reconstruction through Paul's Rhetoric. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
Young, Robert, (revised by) Stevenson, William B. and Wimbish, David,
Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980.
3 0135 00207 5701